Adorning everything from logos and cartoons to packaging and Olympic mascots, the giant panda has become inseparable from the image of wildlife and conservation. But although much of the world knows about the giant panda's struggle, it’s very rare to get a glimpse into their life behind zoo doors.
For this stunning photo series featured in the August issue of National Geographic magazine, photojournalist Ami Vitale has documented the lesser-known everyday life of the giant panda, caught in the midst of China’s tenacious attempts to reintroduce their presence in the wild.
As Jennifer S Holland reports for National Geographic, giant pandas appeared to have bounced back in the wild over recent years. The last giant panda population survey by the Chinese Government said there was 1,864 reported in the wild – up a sturdy 17 percent since 2003. However, many experts warn this is just a reflection of improved ways of counting, finding, and analyzing them rather than a population increase.
In the meantime, the panda’s fate lies in their breeding programs. Huge amounts of time, money and passion have gone into developing these intensive programs; a multi-forked attack of artificial insemination, computer algorithms to calculate breeding decisions, and experts dressed in panda suits to prepare the cubs for life without humans. These panda costumes are also covered in the scent of panda urine to ensure the cubs don’t get used to human contact.
The released pandas are also tagged so researchers can track their whereabouts and progress. However, the results don't always have a happy ending. As the report and photo series vividly shows, there’s an uneasy and surreal clash between the wild temperament of the panda and the artificial ways of preserving its future.
Check out the full report and more photographs on the National Geographic website, and in the August issue of National Geographic magazine.
The cover of the August issue of National Geographic magazine.
At Bifengxia, bears mate under a keeper's watch – a far cry from the privacy they have in the wild. The panda base’s operators are finding ways to allow for natural reproductive behaviors such as scent marking, mate choice, and male competition. Image credit: Ami Vitale/National Geographic
Wolong Reserve keepers transport Hua Jiao (Delicate Beauty) for a health check before she finishes “wild training”. The habitat also protects red pandas, pheasant, tufted deer, and other species that benefit from giant panda conservation. Image credit: Ami Vitale/National Geographic
Ye Ye, a 16-year-old giant panda, lounges in a wild enclosure at a conservation center in Wolong Nature Reserve. Her name, whose characters represent Japan and China, celebrates the friendship between the two nations. Ye Ye’s cub Hua Yan (Pretty Girl) is being trained for release into the wild. Image credit: Ami Vitale/National Geographic
Caretaker Li Feng cradles her precious charge by the window of Bifengxia’s panda nursery, the most popular stop for visitors touring the facilities. More than 400,000 people visit each year to glimpse and snap photos of China’s most beloved baby animals. Image credit: Ami Vitale/National Geographic