His name means "auspicious." But when he took his first ponderous steps out of a cage and plodded off into the bamboo forests of southwest China on April 28, experts were already asking just how fortunate Xiang Xiang (
The four-year-old was carefully selected at the Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Area to be the first giant panda ever to be bred in captivity and then released into the wild in a program China says will help save the endangered species.
Pictures of Xiang Xiang's release in front of a crowd of excited onlookers, policemen standing by with tranquilizer guns and the tearful 28-year-old keeper who raised Xiang Xiang from a cub were beamed around the world as evidence of another world first for China.
But the high-profile breeding program in Sichuan is controversial and some experts say that rather than releasing giant pandas bred in captivity into the wild, China should instead be concentrating its resources on preserving habitats for pandas like Xiang Xiang to live in.
Since the 1970s, 50 percent of the pandas' habitat has been wiped out by deforestation and rapid industrialization. So as Xiang Xiang begins his battle to survive life in modern China, the pressing issue is not whether pandas should be released to the wild but whether there is sufficient wild to release them to.
"What difference really is one panda released in the wild going to make?" asked Gail Cochrane, veterinary director at Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation who said she found the jamboree surrounding the release of Xiang Xiang was "a little bit inappropriate."
Now that he is in the wild -- micro-chipped and tracked by satellite so his progress can be monitored -- Cochrane believes that adapting to life out of captivity and the circumstances of his unusual upbringing could prove a major challenge. He may in fact end up a very lonely panda.
"Unfortunately what has been happening with captive breeding facilities is that the focus is on the number of baby pandas they can produce per year," she said. "To get a female to come into season every year they have to pull the baby pandas away from the mother when it is six months old."
As a result, she said, the cubs were separated from their mothers at an unnaturally low age and were deprived of the preparation and training mothers provide their young for surviving in the wild.
"Also, Xiang Xiang is a young male. You don't want to release him in an area where there are other breeding groups of pandas. He could disturb the other pandas and decrease their breeding rate," Cochrane said.
It is understandable for China to put resources into the captive breeding program rather than to concentrate more effort on improving the habitat, she said. Captive breeding provides quantifiable results whereas the benefits of improving the animals' habitat are less easy to assess in the short-term.
Pandas bred in captivity can also be lucrative. US zoos pay around US$1 million a year to "rent" giant pandas from China.
"That money is meant to be used for panda conservation, but it is very difficult for the zoos that give the money to get a proper indication of how that money is being spent," Cochrane said. "What we do know is that a lot of money is spent on the captive breeding center."
Meanwhile, China stirred up a controversy in Taiwan by offering two giant pandas free of charge to the island -- something President Chen Shui-bian (
Whether or not cynical motives lurk behind the panda breeding program, however, there are signs that the prospects for the giant panda has begun to improve in recent years and the release of Xiang Xiang into the wild may be symptomatic of a brighter future for the species.
A survey in 2004 by the Chinese government and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) found there were 1,600 pandas living in the wild -- 500 more than previously thought. There are also some 180 now living in captivity in zoos around the world.
Most pandas in the wild live in the 50 nature reserves around southwest China and covering some 10,000km2.
The vital next step, the WWF believes, is to develop "green corridors" to link the reserves and broaden the gene pool of the pandas to give them a better chance of survival.
Dermot O'Gorman, executive director of WWF China, said that existing reserves remained under pressure from deforestation and harvesting of the bamboo forests that pandas are dependent on.
The WWF is working to try to get mountain communities to switch from forestry to eco-tourism ventures that will support panda communities.
"What we would like to happen is that further efforts need to be made on panda conservation to really protect the habitat that is suitable for pandas, and the use of green corridors to link up these reserves," O'Gorman said.
Some of the regions containing the panda reserves have already committed to the creation of green corridors and sources say there could be further progress on the network of corridors announced before the end of this year.
So what are the prospects for Xiang Xiang?
"We don't have a clear picture of whether this release will succeed or not," O'Gorman said.
"Only time will tell. Since this is the first time it has happened it is hard to speculate. We can only look at other releases where animals have been acclimatized back into the wild. There has been a mixed success," he said.
"This is a significant event but our main message is that we must protect the panda habitat. That is the long-term solution to the saving of the panda. That is not to belittle the efforts that have taken place with Xiang Xiang, but it should be seen in the context of a much broader approach that is required to save pandas," O'Gorman said.
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