- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

BEIJING — The first panda bred in captivity and released into the wild has died in China after less than a year — the apparent victim of a fall. Chinese officials said the body bore injuries inflicted by wild pandas, and the animal may have died trying to escape.

The body of the 5-year-old panda, Xiang Xiang, was found Feb. 19 on snow-covered ground in the forests of Sichuan province in China’s southwest, the Xinhua news agency said. He survived less than a year despite nearly three years of training for surviving in the wild.

“Xiang Xiang died of serious internal injuries in the left side of his chest and stomach by falling from a high place,” Heng Yi, an official from the Wolong Giant Panda Research Center in Sichuan, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

“The scratches and other minor injuries caused by other wild pandas were found on his body,” Mr. Heng said. “So Xiang Xiang may have fallen from trees when being chased by those pandas.”

He said the announcement of the death was delayed because of the need for an investigation.

“We are all sad about Xiang Xiang, but it doesn’t mean the project has failed,” Zhang Hemin, the Wolong center’s head, was quoted as saying by Xinhua. “The lessons we have learned from what happened to Xiang Xiang will help us adapt and improve the project.”

The 176-pound male panda was released in April 2006. Xiang Xiang, whose name means “auspicious,” had been trained to build a den, forage for food and mark his territory, specialists at Wolong have said. He also developed defensive skills such as howling and biting, they said.

There are about 1,600 wild pandas in the mountain forests of central China — the only place in the world they are found — and more than 180 live in captivity. Pandas are threatened by loss of habitat, poaching and a low reproduction rate.

Sybille Klenzendorf, director of the species program at the World Wildlife Fund, said programs like Wolong’s are expensive and rarely successful.

“It’s so much cheaper and easier to invest into protection of wild habitats,” she said, adding that the WWF works to do just that for pandas.

“Large mammals are very sophisticated in their strategies in living in the wild,” she said. “To teach them these is nearly impossible.”

Ms. Klenzendorf said when the fund began working with China to protect panda habitats in 1992, it estimated there were about 1,000 of the animals in the country. The last survey two years ago put the number at 1,600. She credited China’s placing 65 percent of panda habitats under protection for the increase.

She said zoo programs are useful, especially for educating the public, but resources dedicated to reintroduction would be better spent on addressing the original threat to the species.

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