Panda Tao Tao adjusts to life in the forest

Tao Tao.

CHINA - When Tao Tao, a 2-year-old male panda, was released into the wild on Oct 10, 2012, Zhang Hemin was worried.

Since birth, Tao Tao had been raised in captivity at Wolong National Nature Reserve, Sichuan province, where Zhang works as the chief of the reserve's administrative bureau.

And Liziping Nature Reserve in Shimian county, where Tao Tao was expected to live all by himself, covers 14,700 hectares.

Tao Tao is not the first panda to be released into the wild in China. About seven years ago, the first endeavour by the reserve in Wolong ended in tragedy, when a panda it set free failed to survive the harsh natural environment.

Zhang faced mounting pressure as the world turned its attention on Tao Tao's release.

The effort has turned out to be a success. One year after his release, Tao Tao has adapted well to the wilderness.

"A team of animal experts and local employees at Liziping Nature Reserve found Tao Tao up a tree more than 3,000 meters above sea level on Oct 30," Zhang told China Daily.

After Tao Tao was released, the team found him several times. But in May, they could no longer trace him because the panda's GPS tag was lost.

"We attached a 500-gram GPS tag on him. Tao Tao must have felt uncomfortable with it and managed to get rid of it," Zhang said.

Unable to rely on technology to keep track of Tao Tao's whereabouts, the team of animal experts searched the reserve for his droppings every day to make sure that he was still alive.

On Oct 30, the team heard the sound of an animal traveling in the woods about 3 km from where Tao Tao was set free last year. As they approached, they found a panda nestling among the branches of a tree.

Huang Yan, a deputy general engineer at Wolong, said: "The panda is very agile. It can run away quickly at the sight of a person. Only when it can't run away will it retreat to a tree."

Unsure if the panda was Tao Tao, a vet used an anesthetic rifle to tranquilize the frightened bear, which fell into a net set up by the team.

While the panda was sedated, the vet took a blood test, which showed the panda was in good health and was indeed Tao Tao, said Yang Zhisong, the team leader and an associate professor of zoology at China West Normal University in Nanchong, Sichuan.

Half an hour later, Tao Tao regained consciousness. He opened his eyes and lay on the ground motionless for a while. Then, he twisted his body, stood up and walked away, but not before the team attached another GPS tag to him.

"He didn't see us when he walked away because we were all hiding," said Yang.

Tao Tao weighed 42 kg when he was released into the wild last year. When he was found last week, he had gained at least 10 kg, Yang said.

Zhang refused to acknowledge the panda's release as a successful example of reintroducing a captive panda into the wild. "His release is a success only when he has mated and fathered a cub," Zhang said.