Three years ago, Ami Vitale was sent to China’s Wolong Nature Reserve to photograph conservationist Zhang Hemin teaching pandas to be wild. At first, Vitale was worried she couldn’t make the photos special. “Everybody knows what [pandas] look like,” she says in a talk at TEDxWanChai. “[In zoos] they never fail to attract these massive crowds.” But when she got to Wolong, everything changed. “It kinda blew my mind,” she says.
In China, Vitale was thrust into the world of panda research, getting lessons on pandas from Hemin, the director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. Hemin and his team shared how researchers “cracked the code” of panda reproduction and why they were running “schools” for panda cubs.
“After one generation in captivity, these little cuddly creatures forget how to survive in the wild,” Vitale explains. “They literally have to be trained to be wild.” Hemin’s team prepares captive-born infants to enter the wild, and for three years Vitale followed their efforts, photographing the progress of many young panda pupils.
To keep the pandas from growing comfortable with humans, the staff at Hemin’s schools all wear panda costumes — covered in panda urine. “All the scientists, all the keepers, even [I] had to wear these panda costumes,” Vitale says.
The staff then put the pandas through tests; in one, a stuffed leopard is scented with urine and fit with recorded growls and placed into the habitat. “If the baby panda was curious and ran up and sniffed the leopard, she fails,” Vitale says. “She goes back into captivity forever.”
With each test, the pandas who pass move into larger and larger enclosures, until eventually, graduates are introduced to the wild. Vitale watched the graduation of Zhang Xiang, or Hope, who became the first captive-born female panda to enter the wild.
Vitale hopes that the success of programs like this will help people to galvanize around protecting and rewilding other species, especially those that are not so cute and fuzzy.
To learn more, watch Vitale’s whole talk below: