New Panda Project Enlists NBA Star

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The last time I visited Dujiangyan, China, was in the spring of 2008, when a massive earthquake had brought the city to its knees. Today, the city hosted two of China's most iconic treasures-the Giant Panda and former NBA basketball player Yao Ming.

What do the two have to do with each other, you ask? Well, having met both, I'll tell you-they both have 1) the adoration of their countrymen, 2) a travelling entourage, and 3) giant paws.

Yao Ming was chosen to inaugurate a new protected area called Panda Valley, which Chinese conservationists hope will provide select pandas the tools they need to assimilate back into the wild. It is the latest attempt to give the notoriously difficult-to-breed species a leg up. Six young pandas were selected for the "wildlife training." They'll continue to get food and water from human caretakers, but they'll be gradually eased into independent living. At least, that's what scientists hope.

Giant pandas are one of those animal species for whom humanity is both a curse and a blessing. Urban development has led to devastating habitat loss (pandas need literally tons of bamboo to feed). But the innate evolutionary disadvantages of pandas (they don't like to have sex much) have been helped by human intervention, in the form of artificial insemination. They do have one critical advantage that may have kept them alive longer than nature intended.

Giant pandas are irresistibly adorable. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into their preservation. It costs a million dollars a year just for a foreign zoo to borrow one (all Giant Pandas are the official property of the Chinese government). And everywhere they go, they are the star attraction. When the famed Wolong Preserve was damaged in the '08 earthquake, international attention quickly turned to the fate of the prized pandas.

So it is no surprise that $4.75 million has been invested so far in this latest pet project. Only six, hand-selected, hearty young panda pioneers will be introduced initially to the enclosure, but researchers hope to expand those numbers. The goal is reportedly to eventually release 100 pandas into the wild over the next fifty years, after they've undergone survival training. According to the government-run China Daily, the pandas will be allowed to forage and feed freely in the enclosure. But it's unclear how effective such a program will be.

Introducing captive-bred animals into the wild remains a holy grail to conservationists, but doing so is extremely difficult. With pandas in particular, the challenges loom large. Out of ten pandas that have been released into the wild since 1983, only two are still living in the wild. Six were brought back to the preserve for medical reasons, and two are believed to have died. It's not yet clear how this reserve equips pandas better for the wild than the Wolong Preserve, which also offers pandas a semi-wild environment.

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