Sunday, January 9, 2011

BAMBOOZLED!... or how I dressed in a giant fluffy panda suit to convince the world's most pampered infant that I was one of the family


Bear necessity: Reporter Simon Parry with his panda disguise

Maybe it was his animal instinct telling him those weird-looking pandas were coming to grab him again.

Or maybe he had an unusually well-developed sense of humour and thought it amusing to keep six of us standing around in panda suits on an icy Chinese mountainside.

Either way, the baby giant panda seemed intent on making mischief.

Before we had even set foot in his enclosure, he gave his mother the slip and scrambled 30ft up into the branches of a tree. There he sat, perched defiantly, with no intention of coming back down to earth.

Hanging around: The young panda sits in a tree, where he remained for more than four hours before one of the scientists (right) was able to grab hold of him

In a hidden cabin nearby with a wall of TV monitors positioned to capture every move of the baby panda and his mother Cao Cao, I was left scratching and fidgeting with a vet and a team of keepers, all unconvincingly disguised as adult pandas – the type that happen to walk on two legs and carry clipboards, medical bags and cameras – on standby to give the surly infant a medical check-up.

It was clearly going to be a long and uncomfortable wait.

Like millions of others, I had been captivated by the photographs published around the world last month of keepers in comical panda suits cradling the baby giant panda to prepare him for the wild by rearing him without him ever seeing a human.

For the record: A scientist checks the little panda's medical notes before his next examination

The shots – taken by one of the centre’s own photographers – showed the panda, then four months old, being carried and weighed by staff in panda suits specially made to try to ensure that the infant does not grow accustomed to the sight and touch of people. One day, it could save him from poachers.

Now, on a snowy January morning in the mountains of South-West China, I had been offered the chance to be the first foreigner – and outsider – to put on a panda suit and take part in the monthly health check.

Open wide: The panda has his teeth checked

But the patient was clearly determined to break his appointment.

‘How long do baby pandas stay up trees before coming down?’ I asked lamely, after half an hour of watching a TV monitor showing the youngster rocking nonchalantly back and forth on his branch.

The answer, I discovered, was as long as he damn well pleases – which in our case turned out to be some four hours and 30 minutes.

The panda is put in a box to be weighed

Finally, with the weak afternoon winter sun glistening on sticks of bamboo strewn enticingly on the ground below, the baby panda – who for a combination of superstitious and sponsorship reasons will not be named until shortly before he is released into the wild – deigned to shimmy his way down to the ground.

This wilful, boisterous toddler could afford to make us wait. After all, he is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill giant panda. In scientific terms, he is pure panda royalty.

Born to a mother bred in captivity but kept in a 2,400 square yard outdoor enclosure since her pregnancy, he is the first captive giant panda to be raised in a natural setting with no sight of humans.

When he reaches six months old next month, he will move to a much larger 40,000 square yard enclosure with chickens, goats and pigs.

Bare-faced: The Chinese scientists with our man Simon Parry and, right, research centre boss Huang Yan

Then, when he is two, he will take his first steps into the wild and the expectations of a nation will be resting on his young haunches.

The hope is that this giant panda – an unwitting pioneer among one of the world’s most endangered species, with only an estimated 1,600 remaining in the wild and 300 in captivity – will be the first captive panda to survive being released into the wild.

source: dailymail

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