Scientists have perfected the art of animal deception by donning panda costumes when they take panda cubs born in captivity for medical examination, so that they do not get used to the human form before they are released into the wild.
The first captive-bred pandas could be reintroduced within the next three years as part of a 15-year programme.
This four-month-old cub was taken to be examined at the Wolong panda reserve in Sichuan province, south-west China, by a researcher in costume. The cub is among the first captive-bred pandas to be prepared for an independent life in the bamboo forests of Sichuan's mountains – frequent contact with people could make it too tame.
The authorities say that they have passed the threshold of 300 captive pandas thought to be necessary for an effective reintroduction programme. Many have been bred at the Chengdu research base of giant panda breeding, four hours' drive from Wolong, where techniques such as artificial insemination, sperm freezing and twin swapping have increased the captive-breeding success rate.
Critics have argued that captive breeding will be meaningless if the panda's habitat is not better protected against human encroachment. Henry Nicholls, author of a new book on pandas, said yesterday in The Independent that reintroduction is an expensive "distraction" with marginal benefit.
"Pandas' success in captivity creates the illusion that everything could be all right: you could come away from seeing them there thinking 'super, it will be OK', whereas they struggle terribly in the wild because of habitat destruction," he said.