On September 10, 2012, the Chengdu Pambassador(Panda ambassador) 2012 campaign was launched in Shanghai by the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, WildAid and the Yao Foundation. Dr. Zhang Zhihe, Director of Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Peter Knights, founder of WildAid, Yao Ming, founder of the Yao Foundation, and delegates from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) opened the ceremony that began the search for three lucky candidates to be Pambassadors.

The first Pambassador program was held in Chengdu in 2010. That year, six Pambassadors from US, France, Japan, Sweden, Mainland China and Taiwan were selected from 60,000 participants. The lucky six then went on to work at the Chengdu Panda Base, learn how to take care of giant pandas, and visited giant panda nature reserves to personally investigate the situation of wild giant pandas and their habitat. After that, they were required to use their newfound knowledge to teach their communities about conservation, giant pandas, and the environment.

The 2012 theme is “Panda Quest – Be the next Chengdu Pambassador”. The change in theme also reflects the change in the programs focus. Besides learning about giant panda reproduction and rehabilitation, Pambassadors will also learn about reintroducing giant panda to the wild.

From 2000 to 2010 the captive giant panda population in Chengdu gradually reached 10 individuals. It was then that the Chengdu Panda Base made the big decision to start the slow process of a reintroduction program. The first step was building the Dujiangyan Field Research Center for Giant Panda. Once the main part of the facility was completed, in January 2012, six pandas were moved into the field research center. Notably, this area is also the location where the first giant pandas to enter captivity since the founding of new China were found. The reintroduction research program will last for at least 50 years, and is regarded as the most ambitious conservation project for endangered species.

The Pambassador 2012 search is well underway with 16 finalists having successfully been chosen for the final round. The 16 candidates selected from the four regions are now getting ready to go to Chengdu, in Sichuan province, China where they will explore the Dujiangyan Field Research Center for Giant Panda and the Longxi Hongkou Nature Reserve, learn how captive giant pandas can be reintroduced to the wild, and will learn how to raise awareness of wildlife conservation among the general public.

From the final 16 candidates, a lucky three winners will be chosen to spend 2013 as Pambassadors. During 2013, the candidates receive professional training at the Chengdu Panda Base, learn the history and the future of giant panda conservation, and start their Global Giant Panda Conservation Trip with the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and WildAid. They will travel to all countries and regions that have pandas including Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, Austria, France, Spain, UK, Mexico, Taiwan and the US. While there, they will communicate with local wildlife conservation institutions, and work to increase public awareness about the conservation of endangered species.

Looking for Bears in China and Spain

It has almost been two years since I was selected as one of the 12 finalists in the Global Search for Chengdu Pambassador in 2010,but that experience is still strong in my memory. The time spent at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding taking care of the giant pandas side-by-side with their keepers, learning about them, and spreading the word about their conservation was a unique opportunity for me to make a difference for the panda. Animals and nature area huge part of my life, which has led me to pursue a career in the natural sciences in my home country, Italy.

Now two years after the first Pambassador contest, I have also had the extraordinary opportunity to apply for and win a spot in the four day GORE-TEX® Experience Tour contest. As a winner I had the opportunity to work with experts to look for brown bears in Val d’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees. Each of the four competition winners from Italy; Spain, France, and England, had a strong bond with the environment. The team of experts was comprised of a forest ranger, a biologist and a professional photographer.

On the first day of the GORE-TEX® Experience Tour we took part in a theory class led by the biologist and photographer. They gave us details about the brown bears we would be tracking, and outdoor photography. We learnt about the bears’ habitats, feeding strategies and behavior. Brown bears (Ur-susarctos) became extinct from Val dAran in the 50s because farmers considered them a threat to themselves and their livestock. Later, between 1996 and 1997 two pregnant females and a male from Slovenia were translocated to Val d’Aran. The bears currently number some 25 individuals.

Brown bears of the Pyrenees live in high mountain valleys in mountain tundra and large coniferous forests. This landscape was shaped during the last ice age (Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation) by the retreat of glaciers across the land. As a result, they left be-hind many lakes and valleys. These brown bears have a good sense of smell and hearing, but they have bad eyesight. They are primarily vegetarians, but will eat carrion and honey. Their only natural enemy is humans. Male brown bears weigh between 110 to 270kg and females up to 150kg. They have a dark brown to light golden colored fur that protects them from the cold Pyrenees winters. Bears spend the winter in caves where they hibernate until spring. At the end of spring mating season begins.

The brown bears don’t reach sexual maturity until they are three to five years old. Once mature, only the strongest male can win the fight for a female. Once he has won his mate, the male will stay with the female for several days or weeks. If the mating results in pregnancy; like the giant panda, brown bears have a reproductive process called delayed implantation. In brown bears, delayed implantation results in the fetus not attaching to the uterine wall until six months after fertilization has occurred. Once attachment has occurred, a brown bears pregnancy lasts eight weeks. A female brown bear gives birth during the winter in a protected cave. The litter can have one, two, or three cubs. After 1.5 years the cubs leave their mother.

Working with bears requires constant population monitoring. This is done by looking for individuals, tracks, scratch marks, feces, and other tell tale bear signs. Now, modem science also allows us to use genetics to help track individuals in a population. However, most successful method to study these bears is to take a pair of binoculars out into the wild, stay quite, watch and wait. This can take many hours. The best time to see brown bears is from May to June when the bears are hunting for extra food.

On our second day we woke up at 06:30am, and started hiking at 06:30am. Brown bears are at their most active first thing in the morning and in the late evening, which meant that if we wanted to see them, we had to keep to their schedule. We hiked for 12 hours through the mountains in order to visit the area our experts knew to be frequented by some brown bears.

On our way through the mountains we saw hair bear traps and food traps. Hair bear traps are made of short wires inserted in tree trunks and then moistened with turpentine; the turpentine attracts bears. When a bear reaches the tree with the hair trap, it will hopefully scratch its back on the tree and trap, leaving behind hair. The hair is then used for genetic analysis. Food traps on the other hand, are planted specifically near infrared cameras. This is an important method to get photos and videos of the individuals that inhabit the area. Another telltale sign of the brown bears was their feces. The feces was right along our hiking trail. The biologist said that it was common for the bears to use the trails to facilitate their own movements through the mountains.

By the end of the four days, we had learned a lot about brown bears, but we unfortunately did not observe any of them. The small population of bears in Val d’Aran means that it is rare to see a bear. Even so, we did see many species of deer, a royal eagle and capercaillie among others.

Working with giant pandas in China in 2010, and then working as part of a team to track brown bears in Spain in 2012 were wonderful opportunities for me to get closer to animals, and go even deeper into the field of conservation.

What will you do in 2012 to show your support for conservation? Perhaps you too can be a Pambassador.