LYME, N.H. — In his 20 years of intimate research on New Hampshire black bears, Ben Kilham has made ground-breaking discoveries on the species’ family structure and psychology.
Kilham’s observations have been so influential that scientists in China asked if he would travel to the country to see if his research and rehabilitation methods could apply to the country’s vulnerable panda population.
After several trips to China, Kilham said he hopes that researchers in Asia will develop similar relationships with pandas to his with North American black bears.
“For generations, these panda cubs have lived in cages,” Kilham said. “It’s amazing to see how when they’re finally released, they blossom.”
The result of his work was captured on the 3D film “Pandas” which will debut at the Simons IMAX Theatre at the New England Aquarium in Boston this April.
“Pandas” will showcase Kilham’s work with China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding over the course of three years. It will be shown around the world.
The film documents Kilham’s initial meeting with Chinese researchers in 2012, when they came to see the enclosure he created at his home in Lyme for black bear cubs.
Kilham said he had met the researchers from China’s Chengdu Research Base years before at a conference in China. They had been interested in his work, but wanted to see it in person, he said.
Kilham has rehabilitated more than 150 orphaned North American black bear cubs in the span of 20 years, acting as a surrogate mother to the bears until they are ready to be fully sufficient, wild animals.
During their first 18 months of life, Kilham bottle feeds the cubs, and spends days accompanying them on long walks in his enclosure, where the bears are free to wander without tethering.
Kilham is one of the first and only researchers to take such an intimate approach to rehabilitation, and to great success.
One of Kilham’s first cubs, Squirty, is now 22 and has mothered 11 litters of her own. But despite being a fully grown, wild black bear, Squirty is still friendly with Kilham.
She lets him approach her and adjust her GPS tracking collars when need be, Kilham said.
“That’s something we will be able to do with the pandas, too,” he said.
Kilham began traveling to China to work with the pandas — eight times in recent years, for up to two weeks at a time. Two post-doctorate research fellows from the United States followed him to live in China full-time working with the cubs, Kilham said.
Kilham said he helped researchers create a spacious enclosure modeled after his black bear enclosure in Lyme on Chinese government-provided land. China is currently home to 1,800 wild pandas that live on 62 acres of natural reserves.
Up until this point, wild pandas have been under-researched in China, Kilham said. Data collected on pandas has mostly been on pandas living in zoos.
But this new panda rehabilitation program will change that, Kilham said. Like his black bears, the pandas will be tracked via GPS locators. Kilham said he hopes that researchers in China will be able to learn from the rehabilitated pandas like he has learned from bears like Squirty.
Kilham said he’s been in contact with producers from IMAX for years, since they caught wind of his intimate work with New Hampshire black bears. The IMAX producers first hoped to feature Kilham on a film focusing on orangutans, elephants and black bears, but they ended up cutting the black bears idea later on in production.
Since then, “they’ve been coming every year since 2008 and buying me dinner,” Kilham said.
When Kilham told IMAX producers about his panda project in China, they were thrilled, he said.
“They said it would be a great idea for a film,” he said. “They couldn’t wait to get to work.”
Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com