China's giant pandas are being spoiled, according to some wildlife experts.
While the animals' welfare must be taken into consideration, experts say pandas should be given less care than they are currently used to, as it may prevent them from adapting to life in the wild.
"It is unfair for the animals to breed them in captivity like pets," said Zhang Jinyuan, deputy head of the Beijing Zoo.
Most panda cubs begin life in an incubator, far from the natural touch of their mother. These pandas don't even have to mate when they get older, as artificial insemination ensures they will reproduce, regardless of their mating habits.
Zhang Hemin, chief of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, said the ability of China's pandas to mate was being eroded because of the tradition of using artificial insemination to help the animals reproduce.
In southwest China's Sichuan Province, the Wolong panda breeding research base is home to a number of male and female pandas born in captivity. Approximately a third of the base's female pandas and two-thirds of its males, however, have shown no interest in mating.
"During their mating season, they have failed to seek out new partners on their own," Zhang Hemin said. Even with the help of breeding experts, about 70 percent of the base's panda couples will fail to mate.
The captive nature of the pandas also causes problems in feeding. Zhang Jinyuan said that if the pandas are fed regularly by human keepers "they will lose their basic capacity to survive in the wild."
The Beijing Zoo used to have keepers feed bamboo to its pandas. Now, the zoo plants bamboo thickets to allow them to find their own food, aiming to create a near-wild environment, Zhang Jinyuan said.
The Wolong panda breeding base is this year expanding its program of releasing pandas into a semi-wild environment to get them ready for the real thing.
"Being deprived of air-conditioning and prepared food may seem to be harmful on the surface, but this move will actually improve the pandas' survival skills, ultimately leading to the preservation of the species," said Zhang Hemin.
Zhang Jinyuan said many other Chinese zoos were also changing the way they raised their pandas, implementing more "wild breeding" techniques to help pandas regain their wild instincts. "Refraining from giving excessive care to the pandas is actually the best way for us to take care of them," he said.