The photo that accompanies Pete Wedderburn's piece in The Daily Telegraph is oddly unsettling. An upright, man-sized panda bear--obviously a human in a full-body panda costume--carries an actual panda cub through what looks like a woodland enclosure. What on earth is going on here? Is it some kind of religious ritual? A shoot for a new Animal Collective video? Is it the sequel to The Strangers that nobody wanted--The Strangers II: Escape 2 Africa?
No. None of the above. Actually, what's happening in the photo is a diligent effort to conserve a threatened species. As Wedderburn explains:
It's well-known that all wild animals become imprinted on the living creatures that are close to them as they are growing up. It's one of the paradoxes for animal-lovers who work in wildlife rehabilitation centres: there are rules that insist that volunteers are never allowed to hand-feed, pet or hold young wildlife, because of the risk that they'll become imprinted on humans. If an animal loses its fear of humans, and starts to behave in "human" ways rather than "wild" ways, its chance of survival in the wild is much reduced. It's standard practice in wildlife rehabilitation for humans to wear disguise when handling young captive animals. This may be as vague as hiding behind a sheet, or as specific as outfits resembling the adult animal.
Wedderburn goes on to note that "nobody knows for sure if the Giant Panda suits will do the trick. What about the scent of humans? What about other non-visual aspects of identity that we humans may not even be aware of? Will the captive animals still fail the 'wild' test when eventually released? It may look wacky, but the scientists are doing their best."
Fair enough. But we're still waiting on a convincing explanation for Anderson Cooper's bunny suit when working with bonobos.