Pity poor Xiang Xiang. Pampered from birth, his every need anticipated by a loyal band of caregivers at Sichuan's Wolong Giant Panda Breeding Center, the baffled bear received the shock of his young life soon after his fourth birthday. Without warning, he was driven into the middle of thick bamboo forest and abandoned, a first attempt by Chinese scientists to return captive-bred animals to the wild. Though he'd had some survival training, Xiang Xiang soon found he'd been dropped in a very rough neighborhood indeed. A few weeks ago, forest wardens spotted Xiang Xiang on one of a string of video monitors positioned throughout the park. He had been bitten by a wild panda when fighting for territory, says Zhang Hemin, director of the Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong. "Our researchers found him and brought him back. The doctor treated him briefly, then sent him back to the wild."
Unfortunately for Xiang Xiang, the tough-love approach only compounded his problems. Soon after his return to the wild he had another encounter with one of his forest-wise cousins. This time, Zhang says, Xiang Xiang tried to escape by climbing a tree. Evidently tree climbing wasn't part of his rehabilitation training either: the hapless bear fell and, from what rangers could gather from their monitors, probably broke a leg. Since then, Xiang Xiang hasn't been seen. Despite that ominous sign, Zhang says he doesn't regret sending his charge back into the wild. "We did not want to keep Xiang Xiang because that would have shown our experiment had failed."
Chinese scientists have spent millions of dollars and gone to extraordinary (some might say absurd) lengths to perfect a captive breeding program for the notoriously shy, sex-averse animals. After several decades of frustration, 2006 was a banner year. Using methods ranging from Panda porn movies to electric rectal probes and Viagra (yes, Viagra; and no, it didn't work), captive panda moms produced 34 cubs. That compares to only 9 in 2000 and zero in many years before that. No doubt the program was initially spurred by a desire to protect the giant panda from impending extinction. Following the creation by the Chinese government of a protected area for the bears, and aided by years of worldwide publicity, that threat has receded. China's population of about 1,600 wild pandas has been stable for some years say Fan Zhiyong of the World Wildlife Fund.
Zhang and others say the "experiment" with the unfortunate Xiang Xiang was the start of a program aimed at returning captive-bred pandas to the wild. But critics say the park is barely able to support the existing population. And, although he says some animals might be introduced into what are now buffer areas around the park, Fan notes that the pressure on the protected zone from factories, roads and human habitation is immense and likely to keep growing. He also concedes that, except for ungulates like deer and antelopes, rehabilitation programs are notoriously unsuccessful, with the animals rarely able to shake their dependency on human handouts. Several long-term efforts to reintroduce orangutans into Indonesia's fast-disappearing forests have met with scant success, for example. Even Keiko the killer whale (the inspiration for the Free Willy movies) ended up hanging out in a Norwegian harbor looking for free food from fishermen and tourists instead of frolicking with his oceanic relatives.
So if the panda rehabilitation program faces such huge odds, why continue breeding the animals if there's nowhere for them to go? Cynics note that zoos pay handsomely (up to a million dollars a year) for the privilege of hosting the animals. If prominently public attempts to reintroduce pandas into the wild is what it takes to keep the breeding program going, Xiang Xiang's coddled brothers and sisters had better prepare themselves to follow him back into the wild. Maybe they should borrow some of those electric probes for protection.