China to search globally for panda keepers

0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily via agencies, July 9, 2010
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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 at a breeding center in southwest China.

Yang Gangkun, a 24-year-old professional panda keeper, feeds apples to a panda on June 10 at the Panda Base in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. [AFP]

Yang Gangkun, a 24-year-old professional panda keeper, feeds apples to a panda on June 10 at the Panda Base in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. [China Daily]

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

As Yang dangles a rod with an apple on it 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 helping them to put on bulk.

"The best bit is when you're on duty and you walk along 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 a panda sees you, it runs over. When you run, it follows and runs too. It's like it's studying the way you are, which is great."

Officials at the base plan to give animal lovers across the world the opportunity to do Yang's job by launching a global search for six panda keepers, as part of an awareness campaign on the plight of the animals.

Organizers say that, starting in 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 at the facility and help raise awareness by blogging to millions of people around the world about their experience, organizers note.

Full details of the competition and how to enter have 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 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 on time outside Chengdu, Sichuan's capital. 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 ($148).

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

He says panda keepers are especially needed at times of mating in spring and birthing, which starts during the summer. These periods 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," says Huang.

Nearly 300 pandas have been bred in captivity at a variety of centers in China and researchers are now looking at ways to send some of them back into the wild to boost the number of animals that roam freely.

"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," says Zhang Zhihe, director-general of the base.

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