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DUJIANGYAN, China (Reuters) - China on Wednesday began sending pandas bred in captivity into a protected area in southwestern Sichuan province, the most ambitious attempt to rebuild the country's depleted population of giant pandas in a natural habitat.
The first six pandas selected from 108 raised by the Chengdu Giant Panda Rehabilitation Project were released for "wildlife training" in a forest area covering more than 130 hectares (320 acres) called Panda Valley.
Officials and panda experts were joined by retired basketball star Yao Ming to inaugurate the Panda Valley wildlife area on the outskirts of Dujiangyan city, about 60 km (40 miles) from the sprawling city of Chengdu.
"A lot of times when we work on the development of a city or village, we should also consider the natural living environment for the giant panda. It shouldn't be that we just think of giving them food and lodging inside a house," Yao said.
Considered a national treasure, pandas have come back from the brink of extinction but they remain under threat from logging, agriculture and encroachment.
Pandas selected for the project will be released in batches and monitored. Those that adapt well in an initial zone will be released into a wider controlled wilderness area.
"The main task for the Panda Valley is to act as a ground for wildlife training. This is not the eventual location where the pandas will be set free in the wild," said Fei Lisong, deputy director for the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding, the centre responsible for the project.
Fei said pandas living in the initial zone would still be cared for by staff because of their reliance on humans for food and water, but they would slowly be eased into living independently in the area.
Chinese media reported that of 10 pandas released into the wild since 1983, only two are still there. Six were brought back to the breeding centre after severe weight loss, one was found dead and another also is believed to have died.
The first six pandas -- named Xingrong, Xingya, Gongzai, Yingying, Zhizhi and Qiqi -- range in age from two to four and were chosen on the basis of gender and health.
In 2004, a census by the Worldwide Fund for Nature found 1,600 pandas in the wild, most in Sichuan province.
Reporting by Royston Chan,; Writing by Michael Martina; Editing by Ken Wills