Caretakers in Costume
Scientists put on giant panda suits to prepare cubs
for the wild
TOP: Caretakers get the panda cub ready for a checkup.
BOTTOM: This cub is the first of five at the nature reserve in Sichuan, China, to be prepared for release.
(Reuters / Jim McMahon)
A cute 4-month-old giant panda cub in China is getting a lot of attention lately—but his foster parents are becoming even more famous. Why? His caretakers dress up in giant panda costumes whenever they interact with him.
Zookeepers are raising the cub so that he can one day live in the wild. By keeping his contact with humans to a minimum, biologists hope to prevent the panda cub from thinking that it's human or from becoming too comfortable with humans. This is called imprinting. Animals that have been raised by and imprinted on humans often don't survive long in the wild.
So far, the cub has lived its whole life in China's Wolong Nature Reserve. He eats, sleeps, and plays in an environment similar to where he would live in the wild. When they are not suited up, caretakers use hidden video cameras to watch him and make sure he's OK.
He is the first cub to go through this new fostering process. His caretakers hope to increase the number of wild pandas by adding pandas born and raised in nature reserves to their population.
It will take years to know whether the experiment is successful. Like human children, pandas don't grow up quickly. Each panda needs at least 15 years to mature in the reserve before it can live on its own.
The risk for the new project is high. The reserve tried a similar project in 2006, but the panda cub, Xiang Xiang, died in the wild only one year after being released. Caretakers are more optimistic, or hopeful, this time around. Over the next few years, Wolong Nature Reserve will start preparing four other pandas for life on their own.
This is not the first time animals have been raised with the help of costumes. Last year, biologists even tricked a tiger mother into raising orphaned piglets wearing tiger costumes like they were her own cubs.
THE PANDA PROBLEM
The giant panda is one of the most endangered species in the world. Only about 1,600 still live in the wild.
Pandas need a very specific environment to survive—they like to sleep in caves and eat bamboo. But the area in which they can live has shrunk by 50 percent in only 20 years.
Three hundred pandas are kept in China's nature reserves, zoos, and animal care centers. Of those, more than half live in the Wolong Nature Reserve.