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Pandas’ date with the wild

Darjeeling, July 22: After five years in the cage, Millie and Sweety will be set free on August 15 to ensure the success of a mission 17 years in the making.

Listed as endangered under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, the two female red pandas, raised by the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, will be released in the Singalila wildlife sanctuary to introduce fresh blood into the fast dwindling wild population.

The release will make the zoo the first in the country to reintroduce captive red pandas in the wild as part of Project Red Panda, which started in 1986 at the zoo with funds from from the Central Zoo Authority, New Delhi.

“Sweety and Millie were to be released earlier. But we felt it wise to release them once the frequency of rain reduced. We chose August 15 because it is Independence day and because the zoological park was founded on August 14, 1958,” said B.R. Sharma, the zoo director.

The zoo authorities have built a conditioning camp — a large enclosure at Gairibas, along the trekking route to Sandakphu — to give them a feel of the wild without exposing them to danger. After spending about two months there, Millie and Sweety will be set free to roam the forest range.

There are 21 red pandas at the zoo and the authorities are confident that they will be able to release more animals once the first reintroduction is successful.

“Four sets of radio collars are being brought in from the US. We will monitor the movements and activities of the animals for about a year to see how they are adapting to life in the wild and to know more about their habits,” said Sharma.

Detailed studies had been conducted for the project and the zoo authorities had collaborated with the Centre of Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, to test the DNA of the animals and ensure that the strains were not similar to the wild pandas in the park.

“We chose not to release a male because that will ensure there is no inbreeding, which could result in deformities and mutations in successive generations,” Sharma said.”

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