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Porn Is Helping Giant Pandas Return to the Wild

Researchers in China are trying to get captive giant pandas in the mood to mate—and produce offspring to be released from captivity—by showing them porn. In the past two years, researches have successfully introduced two young pandas into the wild for...

A panda in captivity engrossed in some panda porn.

In late 2012, a young panda named Tao Tao was released into China’s Liziping Nature Reserve. Born in captivity, Tao Tao is now being billed as the first successful reintroduction of a captive-born panda in history, mostly thanks to hot, steamy panda porn that teaches them the mechanics necessary to mate in the wild

Sixty-three hundred miles, 134 interview-planning emails, and a suitcase full of panda tracking equipment brought me to southwestern China, in the Sichuan province, to speak with Dr. Huang Yan, the lead researcher and director of the country’s newest giant panda reintroduction program, which aims to successfully place captive-born pandas back into the wild. The tracking electronics I was couriering would help me to secure an interview otherwise heavily censored by the country’s Department of Forestry. Made up of GPS units and radio collars, the equipment was provided by Suzanne Braden, director of Pandas International, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting giant panda conservation efforts across the globe.

The World Wildlife Federation estimates that there are approximately 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild. With practically no natural predators, the pandas can blame the expansion of human settlement as a big factor in their decline. But even more to blame could be the pandas themselves. When the new reintroduction process was introduced, the media quickly dubbed it "panda boot camp," as if the pandas were misbehaving teens on Dr. Phil, the difference being that pandas are ludicrously terrible at getting pregnant, while America's teens seem to be good at nothing else.

Reintroduction has been in the works for more than 30 years but has never succeeded. Three decades and eight pandas resulted in exactly zero success stories. Six had been pulled back out of the wild due to malnutrition worries, one went missing and is now assumed to be dead, and the last, Xiang Xiang, had perhaps the most tragic ending. In 2006, the five-year-old panda—whose name translates ironically to “Lucky”—was released into the wild. Less than a year later, he was dead. No one knows what his final moments were for sure, but theories suggest he was attacked by a competing male during the highly-tense mating season. The loss of Xiang Xiang inspired the new reintroduction program.

The most recent reintroduction graduate, Tao Tao, was released in October of 2012. The following May, Suzanne Braden confirmed he was still alive, meaning it was very possible that Dr. Huang’s team had become the first to ever successfully reintroduce a captive-born panda back into the wild.

When I met with Dr. Huang at the Bifengxia Panda Center in Ya’an City in the Sichuan province, he started by explaining the difficulties in getting pandas pregnant. “Female giant pandas go into heat only once a year, in the spring, and that period only lasts for about two or three weeks.” Within that period they are only fertile for about 24 hours. While almost every human man in the world might think this makes an ideal set-up, it’s seems like a cruel joke for the pandas that need to nail every opportunity at successful procreation possible. It’s no surprise then that our black-and-white friends need a little help sealing the deal, especially when pandas in captivity traditionally have a sex drive that’s even lower than their wild counterparts. So it was that the first step of a successful reintroduction program to get the pandas laid, with technology and mankind as the ultimate wingmen.

Careful observation and hormone tests would take care of knowing the when, but at some point, natural instincts would have to take over. In short, the pandas needed to not blow their once-a-year chance at copulating. To do this, researchers tried using unorthodox techniques, including physical training exercises to help strengthen the hind, thrusting muscles of male pandas, as well as panda pornography. They even experimented with offering the pandas Viagra, which met with little to no success. In a weird role reversal, it seemed as if scientists were simply using technology and medicine made for humans on pandas, making us the lab rats for a healthier, happier, more robust panda society.

When used, the pornography was not to help pandas get in the mood, but rather, as Braden explains, “to show them how to do it." The videos themselves contained basic footage of captive pandas mating. Experts say it’s the sound that the pandas might initially respond to, the sort of low repetitive grunt you would expect from a giant teddy bear getting laid. It’s probably also worth noting that, to the outside observer, all pandas look identical, which begs the question: How turned on would you be watching a video of you fucking yourself? To add to that that, the porn has very few angles and no HD, but is admittedly better than whatever the pandas could have come up with on their own.

When Dr. Huang and his team finally manage to get a panda pregnant, it’s a big deal. The mother is quickly sent from China’s Giant Panda base at Bifengxia to Wolong, the main base for the reintroduction program. However, pregnancy is not the only qualifier to enter the reintroduction program. Dr. Huang explained, “Mothers who have experience living in the wild and those who have a successful history of rearing the cubs are the best candidates for rearing a new wild cub. If they meet those criteria, the pregnant mothers are placed in a two and a half acre wild enclosure, protected from outside, competing male pandas and any other predators with fencing.” At the moment of birth, reintroduction begins.

Panda trainers in full panda costume hold Tao Tao

When Tao Tao was born, he was immediately living in a semi-wild environment. Dr. Huang told me, “Earlier introduction was one of the primary focuses of the new program.” Second on the agenda was human interaction, or lack thereof. It was severely limited, and when trainers were required they wore full panda costumes to maintain Tao Tao’s natural fear of non-panda creatures, human or otherwise. Survival skills like foraging for food were then taught principally by Tao Tao’s own mother, who had experience living in the wild. After six months, the enclosure was expanded to more than 24 acres. Radio collars like the ones I had couriered were used to keep tabs on Tao Tao as he explored his expanded territory. Constant monitoring was critical to make sure that Tao Tao wasn’t injured and regularly moving into new areas to forage for food, a sign he was doing well.

After two years of reintroduction training, Tao Tao was deemed ready to enter the wild. With a bit of hesitation, the young panda reluctantly left his cage and entered the wild of Liziping Nature Reserve on October 11, 2012. Now more than a year after his release, Tao Tao is still doing well. He’s passed through the dangerous mating season unharmed, though some researchers point out that he has not reached full maturity, which could mean he is not perceived as a substantial threat to competing males in the area. Regardless, Tao Tao is tentatively considered by many to be the first captive-born panda ever successfully reintroduced into the wild. When I spoke to him, Dr. Huang avoided making this claim as he explained that the country’s Department of Forestry would be the official entity to release that information. A few weeks later, they did.

A Chinese news site broke the report from the State Forestry Administration, which stated, “It is believed that after surviving a cold winter, Tao Tao experienced a reintroduction to other wild pandas during the spring. The group recommends continuation of individuals into the Liziping Nature Reserve.” And that’s exactly what they did. This time, a female named Zhang Xiang, released on November 6, 2013, into the same forest where Tao Tao was released. At press time, both are doing wonderfully. Perhaps they’ll meet someday, watch a little panda porn, eat some bamboo and help save their species, one ridiculously hard to make panda cub at a time.