(PANDA BEARS) CHINA — Six months following the official announcement of his retirement from professional basketball, Yao Ming is back in Chinese news. This week Yao was caught posing with some adorable panda bears, but this wasn’t just a cute photo-op. Ming is participating in a new Chinese program that hopes to preserve and repopulate the nation’s cuddly endangered species. Read more on the panda project and Yao’s involvement below. — Global Animals
No longer able to protect the paint, former NBA All-Star Yao Ming is now doing his best to protect and preserve China's panda population. Photo credit: beijingshots.com


UJIANGYAN, China — Six pandas bred in captivity wandered into an enclosed nature preserve in their native central China on Wednesday, a step toward eventually being reintroduced to the wild, with the help of former NBA superstar Yao Ming.

Researchers hope the captive-born pandas will be weaned from dependency on humans in the coming years and learn to forage, mate and fend for themselves.

In a sign of the hopes for the project’s success, retired Houston Rockets center and conservation advocate Yao attended a ceremony for the release of the six pandas.

“I think it is most important to keep a balance between modern living and nature,” he told reporters afterward. “We have been talking about it for many years, but it is never an easy thing to do.”

Success in the reintroduction project would potentially help save the endangered giant panda. An estimated 1,600 live in the wild, their numbers dwindling from poaching and encroaching development. More than 300 pandas are in captivity in China, which funds breeding programs.

The pandas seemed tentative upon their release. They later ambled about, eating bamboo in their new home, a 50-acre controlled habitat called Panda Valley in the forested hills of Sichuan province, where pandas are native.

The newly released pandas are between the ages of 2 and 4 years old and were selected for their health, behavior and genes from among 108 pandas at the Chengdu Panda Base, a breeding center in the provincial capital.

The $4.75 million habitat is the first phase of the project that will be expanded in area and aims to hold 30 pandas at a time and release 100 of them into the wild over 50 years.

Some environmentalists question the project, given the difficulties captive-bred animals have surviving in the wild. Another panda project started in 2003 suffered a setback when Xiang Xiang, a male panda trained for three years, was found dead in 2007 a year after he was released into the Woolong Nature Reserve.

More CBSSports.com: http://www.cbssports.com/nba/story/16897521/conservation-advocate-yao-helps-with-panda-release