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Tuesday, 31 July, 2001, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK
China backs panda charity
Panda cubs
More than 50 cubs have been born in captivity in four years
Chinese officials have endorsed a charity set up by a man from north-east England who wants to save the giant panda from a life of captivity.

Keith Laidler, 50, says pandas that are being successfully bred in China are unlikely ever to survive in the wild while their natural habitat is being destroyed.

Mr Laidler trained as a zoologist and has spent years filming television documentaries about pandas.

Ahead of the launch of his charity, the Panda Trust, he told BBC News Online: "The focus needs to be changed from breeding the animals to getting them back into the wild, and that is what we are hoping to remedy.

Unless we work out how to return them to the wild they will all live their lives out behind bars

Keith Laidler
"For most people it is not sufficient that an animal should only live behind bars.

"If they are in a zoo but not in the wild you may as well call them extinct.

"Over the last four years 52 pandas have been born in China, but unless we work out how to return them to the wild they will all live their lives out behind bars."

Mr Laidler, from County Durham, has the support of China's Wolong Giant Panda Research Centre, which is located on the country's biggest panda reserve.

Pandas and scientists
The plan is to return cubs to the wild
An official letter from the centre read: "Over the next decade we could for the first time in many years see giant panda numbers in many areas begin to rise.

"The directors and staff of the research centre urge you most sincerely to support the work of the Panda Trust in whatever way you are able."

Mr Laidler, who lives in Rookhope and first visited China in 1984, estimates that the total panda population is about 800.

"For a large mammal that is nothing," he said.

Breeding fixation

Pandas have long fascinated him because of their size and colour, but he is appalled at the amount of illegal logging which threatens them.

"There is a fixation on captive breeding while the forest is being destroyed.

"Even inside the country's biggest panda reserve, there has been a 25% reduction in forest cover since the mid 1970s.

If an animal which everyone loves cannot be saved, what hope is there for some obscure little mammal or bird

Keith Laidler
"Peasants have chopped the reserve into islands, and as pandas do not leave forested areas, there will be in-breeding unless we create green corridors for them."

The Panda Trust aims to provide China's reserve wardens with equipment.

Mr Laidler said: "The wardens who were given the job of preventing illegal logging in the reserves are undervalued.

"They go into the mountains wearing a t-shirt and trainers.

'Acid test'

"They have no uniforms, no cameras, and no walkie-talkies.

"We have got David Bellamy on board and it has to make a difference.

"If an animal which everyone loves like the panda cannot be saved, what hope is there for some obscure little mammal or bird which no-one knows about?

"The panda is the acid test of our commitment to conservation," he added.

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See also:

16 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
Captive pandas too shy for sex
06 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Human threat to panda reserve
18 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Air-con pandas beat the heat
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