Paid to Dress Like Pandas, Save the Species

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A researcher dressed in a panda costume puts a panda cub into a box before its physical examination at the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong National Nature Reserve, Sichuan province. Researchers performing physical examinations on the cub wear panda costumes to ensure that the cub's environment is devoid of human influence, according to local media.

REUTERS/Stringer

How far would China’s conservationists go to safeguard the country’s giant pandas, a struggling species of a couple thousand? This far: oversized, fuzzily oppressive bear costumes.

Wolong Giant Panda Research and Conservation Centre in Sichuan, central China, hasn’t had an easy time of introducing captive-bred cubs to the wild. In 2007, the first attempt to release a panda reared in a human-controlled environment came to naught. The infant was found dead after only a few months, having been attacked by a pack of wild bears.

(More on TIME.com: See photos of Panda Tai Shan)

The center’s staff members are determined not to take any more chances. Even if it means donning panda suits—the stifling Halloween-type, with removable heads—to ensure the cubs in their care don’t grow used to the sight and touch of human beings. That way, they expect, the animals will be more likely to steer clear of poachers once set free.

(More on TIME.com: See more “fake” pandas in Taipei)

Wolong is the first conservation center in China, or the world, to institute panda disguises. And its workers are happy to suit up each time they venture into the enclosures to tend to the pandas, though it seems that the outfits are pretty uncomfortable. It’s not a full-proof plan—“animals smell you long before you see them,” concedes Marc Brody, founder of a partner conservation group—but researchers hope the bear cubs are buying it. (via Daily Mail)

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