China has begun sending giant pandas bred in captivity into a protected area in southwestern Sichuan province, as part of a push to rebuild a depleted panda population in a natural habitat.
Officials and panda researchers were joined Wednesday by basketball icon Yao Ming to inaugurate a wildlife area northeast of Chengdu. They stood by as the first of six pandas were released for wildlife training into a 20-square kilometer habitat. Television footage showed their first tentative steps in a semi-wild environment, with the iconic bears later frolicking and eating bamboo.
Officials say the six were selected for their health, behavior and genetic traits from a pool of 108 bears at a breeding center in the provincial capital. Other releases are to follow. An official at the Chengdu research base said pandas in the controlled habitat will still be cared for by staff, because of their reliance on humans for food and water. But he said they would slowly be eased into living independently in the area.
Viewed as a national treasure, giant pandas have come back from the brink of extinction in recent decades. Scientists say some 1,600 pandas currently live in the wild in the region, with more than 300 others cared for in captivity.