MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
And I'm Alex Chadwick.
And it is a big day for one of the most charismatic animals on earth, the giant panda. It's native to central China but was almost driven extinct there before a conservation program began 40 years ago.
BRAND: It took a long time just to breed the animal successfully in captivity. Now, today, Chinese researchers are releasing Xiang Xiang, a panda born and raised in captivity, into the wild.
CHADWICK: When that panda lumbers up a hillside and into a stand of sheltering bamboo, he will carry with him the hope for the survival of the species.
For this National Geographic Radio Expeditions interview, we called the director of the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, China. He is Zhang Hemin, a wildlife biologist, and when he talks about Xiang Xiang, he sounds like a proud father.
Mr. ZHANG HEMIN (Director, Wolong Nature Reserve) Three years ago, we chose Xiang Xiang for trading. So he got learning how to avoid the natural enemy and how to select the food habitat and also the territory of himself. So it's very good.
CHADWICK: Zhang, a panda, is really -- it's a bear, and when you say that it has to avoid a natural predator, what could possibly be threatening to a bear?
Mr. HEMIN: The natural predator, such as cloud leopard, golden cats, water dogs(ph).
CHADWICK: So you say when it's a sub-adult, when it's not yet fully grown...
Mr. HEMIN: That's right. That's right. But I doubt -- almost no natural predator but some leech.
CHADWICK: A leech. Like a little blood sucking thing.
Mr. HEMIN: That's right. Some make some problems with the pandas.
CHADWICK: It could make it sick.
Mr. HEMIN: Yeah. But they learn how to avoid them, you know. Good sleep beds, you know.
CHADWICK: So you have to teach it where -- it has to learn where to sleep so it wouldn't be vulnerable to leeches and insects and that kind of thing.
Mr. HEMIN: That's right.
CHADWICK: How are you going to monitor Xiang Xiang?
Mr. HEMIN: We have a GPS (unintelligible).
CHADWICK: So, you'll be able to figure out where the panda is.
Mr. HEMIN: Where he's going. Where each day, you know.
CHADWICK: And are you going to send people in to follow the panda or just let him go?
Mr. HEMIN: We will let him go himself, but each month we have, try to see him, directly, one time. But each...
CHADWICK: Try to see him once a month.
Mr. HEMIN: That's right.
CHADWICK: How long have you been working at this research facility, Zhang?
Mr. HEMIN: Almost 24 years.
CHADWICK: So more than 20 years you've been working there. And has it always been your goal to try to release a panda back into the wild?
Mr. HEMIN: If it succeeds. I will training many, many of them, each, probably 10 or 20 of them each year to let them go, isolation, population areas.
CHADWICK: So if this one succeeds, maybe you think you can save the entire giant panda species by breeding them in captivity and then releasing them into the wild?
Mr. HEMIN: This is the best way to protect it, the genetic diversity of the wild pandas.
CHADWICK: Promote genetic diversity and take care of the inbreeding problem. Well, this must be the culmination of a really, a great dream for you, then, this day.
Mr. HEMIN: That's right. You know, I started the captured panda breeding problem, now the survival rate is 100 percent in my reserve. The population in captivity increase a lot. So my final goal is to let them going back to help the wild panda population. That's my final goal.
CHADWICK: Well, Zhang Hemin, this is a great day for you and congratulations for your work with the pandas.
Mr. HEMIN: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much.
CHADWICK: Zhang Hemin is director of the Wolong Nature Reserve in China where a panda born in captivity is released into the wild today for the first time, and we do have pictures of this panda at our website, npr.org.