SICHUAN, September 28, Chinadaily --Wenchuan's conservation center is home to a growing number of the rare animal, Huang Zhiling reports.

thumb Giant Panda -9.29  Pandas On The Rise But Far From Safe

The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently announced that China's giant panda has been downgraded from "endangered" to "vulnerable" on the global list of species at risk of extinction. It said that evidence from national surveys indicates the previous population decline has been reversed. The State Forestry Administration said in an official statement: "It is too early to say the giant panda is no longer endangered."

China's fourth panda census, the results of which were released in February 2015, showed that there were 1,864 wild pandas and 375 captive pandas worldwide as of the end of 2013. That compares with 1,596 wild pandas and 164 captive pandas worldwide in the third census carried out from 2000 to 2002.

But 24 of the 33 groups of wild pandas found in the fourth census are in danger of disappearing, with some groups made up of fewer than 30 pandas. Eighteen of the groups are made up of fewer than 10 pandas each, dwindling on the brink of extinction.

Zhang Hemin, chief of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wenchuan county, Sichuan province, was not in favor of the downgrading but said it showed the acknowledgment of China's achievements in panda breeding.

First-time visitors to Zhang's center do not expect to see many pandas. They owe their pleasant surprise to the painstaking work of the center's researchers in solving the three main challenges of breeding pandas in captivity: estrus, mating and nursing.

Through their work, the center has rescued the animals from the brink of extinction and built up the number of captive pandas from a mere 10 to 216.

"It used to be difficult for captive pandas to become ruttish and mate, and for their cubs to survive. From 1992 to 2006, our researchers solved all three difficulties," Zhang said.

In 1980, an agreement between the World Wide Fund and the Chinese government led to the establishment of the center in the Wolong National Natural Reserve in Wenchuan.

Completed in 1983, the center is now the world's largest panda conservation and research organization.

Researchers originally did not understand pandas' habits. Thinking they preferred a solitary life, researchers kept each panda isolated in a tiny den and fed it only bamboo.

The pandas felt depressed and had difficulty becoming ruttish, Zhang said.

In the course of studies initiated in 1992, male and female pandas were swapped into the dens of the opposite sex so that each would know the smell of the other.

Wild pandas stay active for hours each day. To emulate their natural environment, researchers tried putting the biscuits in places the pandas could not find easily, aiming to get them to move around.

"To make them play, we froze fruits before giving them to the pandas. They had to play with the fruits until they thawed if they wanted to eat, " Zhang said.

It the past, many newborn panda cubs died because of an instinctual quirk; While 50 percent of newborns are twins, a mother typically chooses to care for only one.

A mother panda first tries to care for both babies. But several hours later, she realizes she cannot. If she tries to support both, both will die. So the mothers will desert one baby even if it cries, Zhang said.

Researchers did not know how to handle the abandonment problem. And the death rate was high. They settled on a course that was part philanthropy and part trickery. They would take away the deserted baby and feed it milk. Then they would switch it with the favored cub from time to time, so the mother unwittingly supported both.

Researchers also emulated the mother panda in other ways. Mother pandas lick different parts of their newborn cub, including the anus to get its droppings out. Researchers used a cotton swab to touch the deserted cub and to get the droppings out. This effort ensured the cubs' survival, Zhang said.

With the three primary obstacles hindering the breeding of captive pandas now overcome, the center has been able to develop a self-sustaining and growing panda population. It is now home to 216 captive pandas, accounting for nearly 60 percent of the world total.

With the largest captive panda population in the world, the center no longer captures wild pandas for research purposes. Instead, it sends captive pandas into the wild with the aim of enlarging the natural panda population.

Tao Tao, a 2-year-old male panda from the center, was released into the wild in the Liziping Nature Reserve in Shimian county, Sichuan, in October 2012. He was discovered in a tree more than 3,000 meters above sea level on Oct 30, 2013.

A veterinarian tranquilized the frightened bear with a rifle dart, and Tao Tao fell into a net. A blood test showed the panda was in good health.

Tao Tao weighed 42 kg when he was released in 2012. When he was found a year later, he had gained at least 10 kg.

Since 2006, the center has sent five captive pandas into the wild. Three survived.

Releasing captive pandas is a long-term task that will take much time to accomplish.

"Our center has a plan for releasing a captive panda into the wild each year," Zhang said.