Training pandas for the wild

SICHUAN PROVINCE, China - Loss of habitat and a low birth rate have left fewer than two thousand giant pandas in China, the only place they live in the wild. A research center is dedicated to improving those numbers.

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A visitor dons protective clothing to handle panda cubs at a research center in Sichuan province, China.
CBS News

For most of the world breeding pandas in captivity is the real challenge, but it turns out these guys here in China have really cracked that code. It's not how to get them to breed that's the hard part, anymore, the hard part is how do you get them to go back into the wild? Because when they're like this it's hard to even comprehend this is even a wild animal.

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Panda cubs learn the ropes at a research center in Sichuan province, China.
CBS News

Zhang Hemin, nicknamed 'Papa Panda,' is the director of this research center. Almost one hundred and fifty cameras allow him to constantly monitor the panda equivalent of preschool: as cubs learn how to pick the best bamboo, how mothers chase off some predators and when to climb to avoid others.

A mother panda encourages her cub to climb. The baby can learn that in one day.

The next step is a larger, wilder setting. And a dress code.

No human contact for these pandas and no human odor.

"Yeah, usually you put some urine, panda urine, and feces on there," said Zhang as he gets a coat ready.

Training pandas born in captivity to live in the wild takes about two years. It's up to Zhang to decide when a panda is ready.

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Workers dressed as pandas transport a cub.
EARTH A New Wild/PBS

Zhang watches as the first cub he trained steps out.

"This is a first female we trained and go to the wild," he said. "I'm so pleased, I'm so happy."

If all goes as planned, a mother, along with her cub, are going to be released next month.

Some footage courtesy of EARTH A New Wild/PBS