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New Video Shows Returning Pandas to the Wild Actually Works

A captive-born female, Zhang Xiang, has moved to a different protected area from where she was released—a first for the species.

This Captive-Born Panda Just Made a Breakthrough in the Wild

A female giant panda born in captivity and released into the wild has been filmed four years later looking well and acting wild—in new territory.

It's the first time a captive-born panda has crossed boundaries into another reserve, providing welcome relief for conservationists who have struggled to reintroduce the famous species back into its native China.

Zhang Xiang, which means The Thoughtful One, was also the first female panda set free under China’s breed-and-release program, which has so far introduced seven pandas into the wild. Two have died.

In 2013, officials popped open Zhang Xiang's crate and watched her amble to freedom inside Liziping Nature Reserve, in the mountains of China’s Sichuan Province. (Read about pandas returning to the wild in National Geographic magazine.)

Her scat was last seen in Liziping in January 2016. But in April, a remote infrared camera set up by China's state-run CCTV revealed the bear had traveled to Yele Nature Reserve, an adjacent protected area with its own panda population.

“One of the early challenges to reintroducing captive pandas into the wild is to find areas that can support pandas but are not already in the territory of an existing panda,” Colby Loucks, a panda expert at WWF, says in an email.

“This panda seems to have been able to navigate her way in the wild successfully.”

Big Win for Pandas

The video, posted recently by CCTV, includes footage of the five-year-old bear in Yele, sniffing up a tree marked by a male bear.

“Pandas are a solitary species, and so will urinate on trees as a way of communicating—their crude way of ‘posting a message,’” Loucks says. (See an exclusive look at a panda cub growing up in captivity.)

Female pandas establish loose home ranges, moving with the seasons and sometimes overlapping with other pandas. They’ll move farther afield in search of food—if bamboo, their main food source, isn’t plentiful—or to establish a new home range or find a mate.

Panda School: (EXCLUSIVE) How the National Zoo Trains Its Panda Cub

Pandas need water, bamboo, and some large trees—all of which are plentiful in Yele, Zhang Hemin, director of the China Giant Panda Protection and Research Center near Chengdu, says in the CCTV video.

"Choosing this place indicates Zhang Xiang has totally adapted herself to the [ecology] of the wild.” (See "Pandas Have More Babies If They Can Pick Their Mates.")

Gu Xiaodong, of the Wild Animal Resources Investigation and Protection Management Station in Sichuan Province, adds in the video: “It is a ground-breaking achievement for our releasing effort."

Boosting the Wild Population

The giant panda reintroduction effort has been a long haul. Its first release of a male bear, in 2003, ended with that animal’s death, reportedly during an altercation with other males. One other animal also died in the wild. (Related: “Is Breeding Pandas in Captivity Worth It?”)

How best to preserve the species has evolved over time, and today Chinese biologists breed the bears in captivity but then allow mother bears, in semi-wild enclosures, to rear and “train” their cubs for survival in their native habitat.

Pandas that prove able to fend for themselves are released inside protected areas and monitored via radio collars (Zhang Xiang’s collar is visible in the video).

Officials released their sixth and seventh pandas, both female, into Liziping in 2016.

Also in 2016, the species was upgraded from endangered to vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species, managed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

A major decrease in poaching and a huge expansion of the animal’s protected habitat has led to a 17 percent increase in the wild panda population, according to a Chinese government report.

“Pandas, if given food, habitat, and water, will continue their trajectory of increasing their wild numbers on their own,” says Loucks.

“However, given they are still a threatened species, efforts such as reintroduction of captive species into the wild, if done responsibly, could help to augment the wild population.”

Follow Jennifer S. Holland on Twitter.