Panda keepers face increasing public scrutiny as cameras live-stream zoos
○ Pandas, China's iconic native bear, are in fact extremely dangerous, with many keepers harmed while on the job
○ The prevalence of live-streaming panda sites has made some conservation centers more transparent
○ China continues to strengthen international cooperation on the scientific research of pandas
Despite being called the "world's best job," "happiest job," and "funniest job," these labels are not nearly enough to describe a panda keeper.
Indeed, it must feel amazing to cuddle and hang out with the adorable black and white bears, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sudden rush of love when holding and feeding a panda cub.
However, these cute moments that panda lovers often see on panda channels and live streaming websites are only part of what panda keepers do. An important part of a panda keeper's job is to train pandas to survive when released into the wild. But behind their joy are also the occasional scars and life-threatening injuries.
"Training pandas is extremely dangerous. Panda keepers have to conduct the training in a complicated wild environment with wooded ravines while facing possible attacks from pandas and other wild animals such as bears and wild boars," said Zhang Dalei, a panda keeper at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) in Southwest China's Sichuan Province.
Aside from these risks, panda keepers are now also under intense supervision from worldwide panda fans as part of their live broadcasts; any improper behavior by the keepers is immediately exposed and punished.
Additionally, following strengthened international scientific research on pandas, Chinese panda keepers often have to train their foreign counterparts and even travel to foreign countries for months at a time to take care of their pandas and offer instructions to foreign zoos.
China had 1,864 giant pandas in the wild at the end of 2015, up from 1,100 in 2000. There are also 422 pandas presently in captivity, according to China's State Forestry Administration.
Into the wild
According to written materials the CCRCGP provided to the Global Times, panda keepers often have to stay up late for their work and cannot spend many holidays like the forthcoming Spring Festival with family and friends, as these holidays tend to fall on the mating season.
Cheng Jianbin, a panda keeper for the past six years, said that he often works till midnight during the pandas' mating season. According to him, the season usually occurs between March and May, and is affected by climate and environment. Some seasons are delayed until summer or even winter.
The keeper recalled that, one night during Spring Festival holiday in 2015, he had to help panda Longxin find her life partner.
Cheng tested Longxin's urine, moved her in with several male pandas for natural mating, but failed due to atypical oestrus (sexual receptivity and fertility in female mammals). Finally, Cheng and his colleagues were forced to tie up Longxin, sedate her and conduct artificial insemination.
Wei Hua, a 42-year-old former panda keeper, was left with lifelong physical disabilities. In December of 2016, Wei was severely mauled by the female panda Ximei, who bit him numerous times and dragged him across the ground in an enclosure at the Tiantai Training Center in Wolong.
The extent of his injuries was horrific: two broken wrists, torn foot tendons, multiple bites and gashes and part of his left hand missing. One year after the attack, Wei is still recovering, and yet he longs to return to work and back to his beloved pandas.
Panda keepers often must wear special, comical-looking panda costumes sprayed with panda urine to reduce human influence in their environment.
Wei was attacked while checking up on Ximei's son Baxi, which is when Ximei mistook Wei as a danger to her cub. Zhang, his colleague, said that their mission was to train captive-bred pandas to adapt to the wildness, which is vital to their conservation in China.
Diao Kunpeng, a panda expert at Beijing-based NGO Shan Shui Conservation Center, told the Global Times that captive pandas will be released into the wild after their training in order to improve their genetic diversity and eventually - hopefully - prevent their extinction.
Baxi was returned to nature in November 2017, and thus far has adapted well to the wild. A total of seven captive-bred pandas have been returned to nature since 2006.