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China to launch search for panda keepers

Officials at the Chengdu Panda Base are planning to give animal lovers the opportunity to help look after the endangered animals by launching a global search for panda keepers as part of an awareness campaign on the plight of the animals.

world Updated: Jul 08, 2010 09:34 IST

Yang Gangkun calls out to two pandas lying on their backs chewing bamboo. They push themselves up and slowly amble over for their morning workout in a breeding centre in southwest China.

The 24-year-old is a panda keeper at the Chengdu Panda Base in Sichuan province -- which will soon offer contestants from around the world a chance to help look after the endangered animals for a month.

As Yang dangles an apple fixed to a rod over the wall of their enclosure, Jing Jing and Xiao Yatou stand up on their hind legs and reach awkwardly for the treat with their big paws -- an exercise aimed at bulking them up.

"The best is when you're on duty and you walk on the partition between enclosures," says Yang, after the eight pandas he cares for with 14 other keepers have retired to their indoor air-conditioned pens.

"When it sees you, the panda runs over. When you run, it follows and runs too. It's like it's studying the way you are, it's great."

Officials at the base are planning to give animal lovers from around the world the opportunity to sample Yang's job by launching a global search for six panda keepers as part of an awareness campaign on the plight of the animals.

Organisers say that from August, they will be looking for "bright, articulate and engaging individuals from China and around the world, who care deeply about conservation issues" to spend one month in Chengdu.

The winners will "learn how unique these animals truly are, assist researchers and scientists there, and help raise awareness by blogging to millions of people around the world about their experience," organisers note.

Full details of the competition and how to enter are yet to be released.

Yang, who recently graduated in veterinary studies, secured his position a few months ago and has been working flat out since then in a job deemed crucial to the survival of pandas, of which there are just 1,600 left in the wild.

He gets up at 6:30 every morning to get to the base outside Chengdu, Sichuan's capital, on time. Once there, he feeds the pandas he looks after, cleans their enclosures and makes them work out.

Twice a week, Yang has to stay overnight with the pandas, sleeping near the enclosures to make sure nothing happens to them -- all for a monthly base salary of just 1,000 yuan (150 dollars).

Huang Xiangming, head of the animal management department at the base, says that when it first opened in 1987, the centre only had six pandas, rescued starving from the wild. It now counts 84 permanent residents.

He says panda keepers are especially needed at times of mating in spring and birthing, which starts during the summer. These rituals are vital, as the animals' notoriously low libido has frustrated efforts to boost their numbers.

"We barely rest during these two important times. Our workers just throw themselves into looking after the pandas," Huang said.

"They make such great efforts -- some even postpone their weddings."

Nearly 300 pandas have been bred in captivity in various centres in China, and researchers are now looking at ways to send captive-bred pandas into the wild to boost the number of animals roaming free.

The difficult task got off to an inauspicious start when Xiang Xiang, a male cub, was trained to adapt to the wild and released into nature in 2006. He was found dead 10 months later, apparently killed by wild pandas.

China has started construction on a centre that will help captive pandas adapt to the wild, and researchers also plan to send pregnant pandas into the semi-wilderness in an effort to introduce their cubs to a natural environment.

"We spent the last 50 years saving the giant panda. We are going to spend the next 50 years helping them re-adapt to living in the wild," said the base's director-general, Zhang Zhihe.

The six lucky amateur panda keepers might get to interact with some of the stars of the base, such as Mei Lan, the three-year-old who was born in Atlanta in the United States and returned to China earlier this year.

Under agreements between Beijing and Washington, any offspring of pandas on loan to the United States must be returned to China within two to three years of their birth.

Chen Min, Mei Lan's keeper, was tasked with calming down the recent arrival, who took some time to adapt to her new Chinese environment, and she says the female panda still has a temper.

"Sometimes, if she doesn't do her exercise well, we won't give her an apple and she gets very angry. She'll just ignore you and go to sleep," she says with a smile.

But for Chen, who has been at the centre for over a decade, it's all worth it.

"When I first arrived, there were relatively few pandas. Now there are a lot, and you can say it's partly thanks to our contribution."