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Monday, July 20, 1998 Published at 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Giant pandas follow Dolly

Cloned pandas are set to follow in the footsteps of Dolly the sheep

Chinese scientists say cloning might be a solution to saving the giant pandas from extinction, reports Beijing correspondent Duncan Hewitt:

Currently there are fewer than 1,000 giant pandas living in the wild, and their number is dwindling, not just because of shrinking natural habitats, but also as a result of their famed reluctance to reproduce, especially in captivity.

[ image: Panda with cub - a rare event]
Panda with cub - a rare event
Scientists in China have long been seeking ways of saving the species, but pandas produced through artificial insemination have often lived only a short time and cloning pandas using rare embryos was thought too much of a risk and the successful.

New hope

The successful cloning in Britain of Dolly the sheep, using cells from an adult animal, has given scientists new hope, and China's Academy of Sciences has now announced an official project to clone a giant panda.

Chinese media hailed it as a chance to save a national treasure, but not everyone is convinced.

The man in charge of the project is Professor Chen Dayuan, pioneer of a new technique in which cells from an adult panda are implanted into another animal's egg from which the nucleus has been removed. That animal will then give birth to the panda cub.

Professor Chen told the BBC he was still studying which animal would make the best mother, though he has previously suggested dogs as their incubation period is similar.

[ image: Dolly, the cloned sheep has already had a lamb]
Dolly, the cloned sheep has already had a lamb
He acknowledged potential problems, saying his method had never yet been successfully applied.

But he said he was hopeful of success within three to five years. And he brushed aside criticisms from one prominent Chinese academic who says cloning does not promote bio-diversity.

Professor Chen said new ideas were always controversial, and he stressed that cloned pandas would themselves be able to reproduce naturally.

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