Another panda has died after being released into the wild, putting the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding under criticism.
Hesheng, a captive-bred panda, died in September 2016, two months after being released into the wild in southwest China's Sichuan Province, the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding announced Friday.
The announcement sparked an outcry among Chinese netizens, questioning whether the panda reintroduction program was protecting or “murdering” the adorable animals.
However, experts in the field have not backed down.
Wild giant pandas inhabit six highly separated mountain systems in China, leading to frequent inbreeding and increasing the risk of extinction.
“We release pandas into the wild to live, mate and breed in an attempt to diversify the species' genetic pool,” said Zhang Hemin, director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP).
He said the purpose of captive breeding is to keep the number of pandas at a stable level, but as a species they belong to the wild.
A staff member from the Chengdu base who did not want to be named told Xinhua that releasing pandas back into the wild is a complicated process involving many twists and even failures. The accidental death of Hesheng has put the base under a lot of pressure.
The male panda, born in 2013, had undergone training at Liziping Nature Reserve starting in March 2016 and was released into the wild in July.
On Sept. 11, Hesheng was spotted safe some 3.5 km from where he was released. Just weeks later, however, on Sept. 27, his GPS collar sent an alarm, prompting an overnight search for Hesheng.
When researchers found his limp body, they noticed injuries on his right shoulder, right ear and right hind limb. An autopsy confirmed Hesheng died of septicemia due to a bacterial infection after being attacked by unknown animals.
The number of wild pandas in China has grown steadily to 1,864 as of the end of 2016, and those in captivity numbered 464.
China has released eight pandas into the wild since the reintroduction program began in 2006. Five have survived.
In addition to Hesheng, Xiang Xiang, the first panda released into the wild, died roughly a year later after fighting with wild pandas for food and territory. Xue Xue, the fourth released captive panda, died of illness a month after being released.
There are several steps that must be completed before a release can be declared a success. Releasing is just the beginning. The reintroduced pandas need to survive for at least one year to prove that they can feed themselves. Then they have to “socialize,” create their own territories and be able to mate and breed.
“Pandas are not pets. They should go back to the wild. And the process of captive breeding, wild training and releasing is a road that must be travelled,” Zhang said.
“The reintroduction program is after all a scientific experiment that can take up to several decades. Risks remain, but I believe we can do better in the future,” he said.