Video: Panda playground

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/10/2006 12:17:20 PM ET 2006-03-10T17:17:20

Think of it as a boarding school for pandas: a place where 16 cubs live, eat and play together, all in the name of science and efforts to save the species from extinction.

The school is actually a research center that recently opened in Sichuan province, and China’s Central Television on Friday aired video of the giant panda cubs playing — and even doing face plants — on slides and other playground equipment.

Separated from their mothers soon after birth, the 16 cubs are between five and seven months old, the network reported.

Too young for bamboo eaten by older pandas, they can only consume the special milk made by the research center.

A researcher said the pandas would eventually be divided into two groups: some will be used for breeding, while the rest will be released back into the wild.

Pandas are notoriously difficult breeders and Chinese scientists have tried nearly everything to increase the population in captivity, including showing films of other pandas mating.

Some 1,600 pandas are estimated to be left in the wild in China, but the animal remains endangered because its scattered habitat makes breeding difficult for the notoriously reclusive animal.

The pandas’ habitat of bamboo forests has also seen heavy clearing for agriculture, timber and firewood, and pandas are even illegally hunted for their pelts.

Giant pandas are classified as bears, which are carnivores, but they have adapted to a vegetarian diet and depend almost exclusively on bamboo, eating up to 100 pounds a day.

China boasts that its captive breeding program had a record 21 surviving baby pandas last year.

The previous record was set in 2003, when 15 babies born in captivity survived.

China has 183 pandas living in captivity, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. It said another 24 live in nine zoos in the United States, Japan, Germany, Austria and Thailand.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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