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China hoops star becomes pandas' pal


Retired NBA basketball star Yao Ming holds a panda during a ceremony for the release of six pandas in the Panda Valley natural reserve in Dujiangyan, in southwestern China's Sichuan province on Wednesday.

BEIJING – Retired NBA star, Yao Ming, carved out an eight-year career protecting the hoop in the NBA. His next defensive assignment though may be a considerably taller task for the 7’6” all-star, if not a lot cuter and fuzzier than his former basketball opponents.

Yao was in the central Chinese province of Sichuan on Wednesday, where he presided over the opening of a new phase in the giant panda-breeding program that some experts hope will help pandas born in captivity eventually assimilate back into the wild through a regimen of acclimation and survival training. 

“I think it is most important to keep a balance between modern living and nature,” said Yao to reporters in Sichuan. “We have been talking about it for many years but it is never an easy thing to do.”

China Photos / Getty Images Contributor

Giant Panda "Yingying," eats bamboo at the enclosed Panda Valley natural reserve after being released into the semi-wild in Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province, China on Wednesday.

Chinese experts constructed a $4.75 million habitat called “Panda Valley” in the area around the town of Dujiangyan – a place heavily hit by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The 50-acre park will serve as a large, open-area school where researchers will be able to slowly teach the pandas the art of survival in the harsh, elevated mountain wilderness that pandas thrive in.

Over time, organizers plan to expand the panda habitat to eventually allow for up to 30 pandas to live there. It is hoped that eventually 100 pandas from this facility will be released back into the wild over the next 50 years.

Panda researchers in China screened the 108 pandas in captivity at the Wolong Panda Reserve in Sichuan over the period of a year and whittled the list down to six final candidates. The roster included such panda celebrities as twin brothers, Xingrong and Xingya, and one panda named Gongzai, who was the inspiration for “Po” the rotund, fighting panda featured in the “Kung Fu Panda” movies.

These pandas were selected for this pilot project based on criteria that encompassed age, health and genetic background. 

It is hoped that the pandas selected will demonstrate the best combination of strength to defend themselves from wild pandas, while being young enough to allow them the opportunity to grow up and adapt to their wild surroundings.

The ultimate goal is for these pandas to grow up, assimilate into the wild and give birth to new pandas ready to survive in the wild.

China Daily / Reuters

Former NBA player Yao Ming and his wife Ye Li play with giant panda cubs at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Sichuan province, on Wednesday.

The preserve’s opening comes as China is in the midst of a nationwide panda census that is conducted every ten years. There are an estimated 1,600 pandas living in the wild and an additional 300 living in captivity.

Despite China being at the forefront of panda research and the masters of a highly successful breeding program, some experts feel that the park is simply too expensive and that previous attempts to create similar preserves for other species have come with mixed results.

A similar attempt to reintroduce pandas back into the wild in China ended in failure in 2007 when Xiang Xiang, a five-year-old male panda trained for three years by researchers was found dead after he was killed by wild pandas.

Related link: Six pandas amble toward freedom in China preserve