The Unusual Difficulty Of Photographing Pandas

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Photograph by Ami Vitale, National Geographic Creative
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A bumper crop of giant panda cubs are brought out for a portrait at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center in Sichuan Province, China.

Pandas are undeniably adorable to behold, but that is not what made photographer Ami Vitalefall in love with them. In fact, finding new ways to photograph these iconic bears for National Geographic made this one of the most challenging projects she has worked on.

Over the course of three years, Vitale visited multiple panda bases run by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, chief among them Wolong and Bifengxia.

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A giant panda cub lies on the grass at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center in China's Sichuan Province.

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Three panda cubs are being raised by the same mother at the Bifengxia center. Transferring a weak or rejected infant from its birth mother to a surrogate is helping to boost cub survival.

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Three-month-old cubs nap in the panda nursery at Bifengxia. A panda mother that bears twins usually fails to give them equal attention. Keepers reduce the load by regularly swapping cubs in and out—making sure each gets both human and panda-mom care.

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Panda keeper Liu Juan interacts with a pair of panda cubs as tourists look in at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center.

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Blind, nearly hairless, squeaky, and 1/900 the size of its mother. But it won’t be for long. The panda is among the fastest growing mammals, increasing from around four ounces to four pounds in its first month.

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A panda mother that bears twins usually fails to give them equal attention. Keepers at Bifengxia reduce the load by regularly swapping cubs in and out—making sure each gets both human and panda-mom care.

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Baby pandas wean from their mothers between 8-9 months and a year old and generally stay with their mothers for 2 years.

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Panda keeper Zhang Xin weighs a panda cub at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center.. ‘We look every day at the adults, the babies, how much they are eating, what their poo looks like, if their spirit is good. We just want them to be healthy,' she says.

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A mother panda cradles her cub inside the Bifengxia center.

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A pair of panda cubs interacts while being cared for at Bifengxia.

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Six month old pandas play at the Dujiangyan Panda Center. At one year old, babies are brought here to buddy up. These pandas will spend their lives in captivity. In the wild, giant pandas prefer to live alone.

 

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Ying Hua is photographed with her baby at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center.

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A pair of panda cubs practice climbing in and out of trees at the Wolong China Conservation & Research Center for the Giant Panda. Pandas born here do not interact with humans in hopes they will be able to live in the wild.

 

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Six month old pandas munch on carrots at the Dujiangyan Panda Center.

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A cub explores her enclosure at Wolong.

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YeYe and her two-year-old cub Hua Jiao explore their enclosure at Wolong. Away from human influence, YeYe will gradually train her cub to survive in the wild.

 

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A mother and her cub play inside an enclosure at Wolong. The cub is being trained to go back into the wild but must be deemed fit to survive on its own, including being able to recognize predators.

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Camouflaged by a bamboo thicket, a giant panda will spend much of the day surrounded by and munching on its favorite food at Bifengxia. Pandas used to eat both meat and plants. At least two million years ago, their diet shifted to bamboo.

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"Contrary to how we are used to seeing them in zoos, as very animated and social creatures, or in cartoons as almost clownish, giant pandas are quite elusive,” Vitale says. At Wolong, where pandas live in large enclosed habitats, the challenge was waiting for a glimpse of them through the thick bamboo forests or at the tops of trees.

The goal is to eventually release pandas that are born here into the wild, which means they are strictly protected from human contact. This made it even more difficult for Vitale to get close. Photographing them in their enclosed habitats meant dressing up in a panda suit masked with the scent of panda urine and feces, waiting from sunup to sundown for the right moment to arise.

Disguising yourself in such a way likely makes the bears think that you are, rather than a human, just a strangely-shaped panda.

Bear Challenges

Bifengxia, a breeding and research center staffed around the clock by doting caregivers, presented many opportunities to photograph panda interactions. But there, the challenge was navigating the protocols of protective caregivers who care much more about the well-being of their charges than about getting a great photograph.

Ami Vitale donned a special disguise when photographing pandas at the Hetaoping Wolong Panda Center. Pandas being trained to live in the wild musn't be used to seeing humans, including photographers.

 

“It was not just about getting access and gaining local trust,” Vitale says, “but also about being able to work with a wild animal. [Baby pandas] are fragile, and vulnerable. After six months they have teeth and claws.” After all, Vitale says, “they are bears.”

Vitale is now sharing some of the tricks she had to learn to while taking photographs, compiled and published in a book called Panda Love: the Secret Lives of Pandas.

When something does happen worth photographing, you have to be ready. Vitale recalls waiting for two uneventful days and nights for a mother panda to give birth in her enclosure. Little by little, “I noticed that she was starting to behave a little differently so I started getting ready. The baby squirted out, and there was this screech. It happened so fast.”

“Within seconds,” she says, “Ming Ming picked it up in her mouth and turned her back to us.”

Seeing moments like the birth of Ming Ming’s cub—while photographing these animals at these breeding and rewilding centers run by the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda—that deeply touched Vitale. “When I began the story I didn’t have that wild panda fever, but after spending so much time with them I understand why people do.”

Raising Cute Pandas: It's Complicated

Animal Connection

While working on the book, Vitale also came to appreciate that the animals aren’t notable only for their adorable appearance—but rather for the connection they engender to nature.

“The thing that really captured my heart is that you start to realize they are these incredible, mysterious, precious creatures,” she says. (Related: An author reveals the funny, crazy secrets of misunderstood animals.)

Wild pandas live most of their lives alone in the mountains of China, coming together only during brief periods to mate and give birth. They have evolved over millions of years to eat a diet perfectly suited to their natural habitat—bamboo, and lots of it—which makes them particularly vulnerable to habitat loss.

Their reliance on bamboo and sensitivity to habitat loss helped lead to a decline in their population, and they were listed as endangered by the 1990s, sparking a herculean effort on the part of the Chinese to save them. As of 2016, pandas are considered “vulnerable”by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a group that classifies that status of threatened animals. That’s an improvement from the previous calculation, though threats to their habitat still remain, not to mention the difficulty of successfully breeding these naturally solitary bears in confinement. (Related: The desperate measures needed to get pandas and other endangered species to mate.)

Vitale recalls a moment from her last day covering this story, three years after she first began. She was at Wolong, trying to get a good shot of a mother panda and her cub. “It was always sleeping or the mother was hiding it. I was thinking, that’s it, the story is over. And right before I’m leaving, she takes the baby into her mouth, walks up this hill, puts the baby in her paws and lifts it up as if to show me, then walks back to where she was.”

While this may have been a coincidence, it is for her an example of the emotional and spiritual connection pandas engender in the hearts of humans. And it is this awareness of our connectivity, she says, which leads to falling in love, and then having the courage to act on behalf of all of the creatures with whom we share the planet.

“Saving nature is about saving ourselves,” Vitale says. 

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