In 'Pandas' film, Drexel team helps release artificially bred bears into the wild

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Biologist Ben Kilham interacts with Qian Qian, a giant panda that was artificially bred and released into the wild in China. He and other scientists affiliated with Drexel University are featured in a new documentary on the project.

Drexel University environmental scientist James R. Spotila cofounded a nonprofit group in 2007 to develop collaborations with researchers in China, and before long he was invited to visit a facility that was intertwined with that country’s very identity: a breeding program for giant pandas.

He asked if climate change posed a threat to the black-and-white bears, listed at the time as an endangered species. Not yet, the Chinese scientists responded. The real problem was getting artificially bred animals to survive in the wild.

Spotila knew of another U.S. scientist who had pioneered a method for introducing orphaned black bears into the wild. Perhaps it could work with the pandas as well?

The project that resulted is featured in the new IMAX documentary Pandas, showing Thursday in a sneak preview at the Franklin Institute.

The movie is narrated by Kristen Bell, of NBC’s The Good Place and films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but the real star is Qian Qian, a 4½-year-old panda whose name translates loosely as “Pretty Girl.”

Previously, China’s artificially bred pandas were released into the wild abruptly, and some did not survive. Qian Qian, on the other hand, was introduced gradually to the outside world under the supervision of Chinese and U.S. scientists.

She lived at first in a pen, nursed by a surrogate mother and later bottle-fed by the scientists. At 7 months, she moved to a 12-acre enclosure, initially returning to the pen at night. In 2016, at 2½ years of age, she graduated to a 100-acre enclosure, and soon after was turned loose in a mountainous region in southern China’s Sichuan province.

At each stage, a small group of scientists kept a protective eye on the bear as she explored her environment and learned to forage for food — primarily bamboo.

“It’s in their genes to be a panda,” Spotila said. “But you have to not feed them. You have to let them explore.”

This “soft release” was patterned on a black-bear release method developed in New Hampshire by biologist Ben Kilham, who joined the panda project at Spotila’s invitation.

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Jacob Owens, who earned his Ph.D. at Drexel University, holds Qian Qian, the star of the new movie “Pandas.” Owens works with Chinese scientists to prepare artificially bred animals for release into the wild.

At first, Chinese scientists were skeptical that the method would work on pandas, so they traveled to New Hampshire to watch Kilham in action with the black bears. Another crucial element in persuading them was the involvement of Sheri Yi, a native of China who is married to Spotila’s brother, John.

A longtime organizer of professional and education exchange programs between the U.S. and China, Yi spoke to the Chinese scientists on behalf of the Spotila brothers and Kilham, and she established a level of trust.

“I’m not only playing a role of translating, but I’m using my judgment to communicate,” she said.

The goal is to boost the wild panda population, which has dipped below 2,000 bears as development encroaches on their habitat. To avoid further losses, and to ensure there is enough room to accommodate the influx of artificially bred animals, the Chinese government has established nature preserves.

But nature can be an unforgiving place. Like the abrupt-release method before it, the soft-release approach has suffered setbacks. He Sheng, a second panda that went through the soft-release program, died of an infection after being attacked by unknown animals.

Qian Qian also suffered injuries in some sort of attack. But the scientists saw from the bear’s GPS transmitter that she was not moving, and came to her rescue in time.

Wenlei Bi, a Drexel Ph.D. student who is from China, climbed a tree to give medicine to Qian Qian. He and team member Jacob Owens, who earned his doctorate from Drexel in 2013, eventually persuaded the bear to climb down and took her back to the 100-acre enclosure to recover.

She is expected to be released to the wild once again this summer, said Kilham, who earned a Ph.D. from Drexel in 2015.

The scientists will compare the soft-release method with the traditional Chinese “hard-release” approach to see which one is more successful, but it seems clear that Qian Qian would not have survived had she not been willing to accept aid from her Drexel-trained overseers, Spotila said.

Yet could too much familiarity with humans have unforeseen consequences? That issue merits careful study, said Joseph Clark, a research ecologist and bear expert with the U.S. Geological Survey who is not involved with the panda project.

The Drexel-China team says so far there is no cause for concern. In every respect, Qian Qian acts like a wild animal and steers clear of humans other than the handful of scientists who monitor her, Spotila said.

When the movie had its Los Angeles premiere in March — at the landmark TLC Chinese Theater, of course — narrator Bell was on hand. But her furry co-star was in a nature preserve half a world away, presumably looking for bamboo.

The sneak preview of “Pandas” is Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Franklin Institute’s Tuttleman IMAX Theater. Limited tickets are available online at eventbrite.com. (In the bar at the top of that web page, search for “pandas.”)