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Kingdom of the Panda

Can these threatened creatures thrive in freedom? Studies in the wild find reason for hope

Nov 1, 2002 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:00 AM


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All text and images are from the publication Giant Pandas in the Wild: Saving an Endangered Species. ©2002 Aperture Foundation Inc.

As the snowy trail zigzagged into the forest, I saw tracks made by a shrew; signs of a takin, an oxlike creature; and, finally, panda feces and a few footprints in the snow. That evening in camp, I wrote in my notebook: “My dream has come true.” It was 1985 and I was 19 years old, in my last year of undergraduate study in biology at Peking University. In this reserve in the Qinling Mountains of southwestern China, I was starting what was to become my life’s work: the study of pandas in the wild.

At the time, no one knew much about pandas, including what the bears need to survive or even how they breed. Conservation was still new in China. Concern had been raised because a massive die-off of arrow bamboo, a normal event in the plant’s reproductive cycle that occurs just once every 70 to 100 years, prompted fears that the wild panda population would starve to death. The Chinese government decided to capture as many wild pandas as possible and place them in rescue centers built throughout the animal’s habitat, in Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi provinces.

Nonetheless, pandas had not fared well in captivity. Of 304 pandas in zoos in 1985, only 76 had been born in captivity and all but 19 had died within a month. Some scientists speculated that a physiological defect contributed to the species’ dying out. Although zookeepers knew that pandas were as tough, aggressive, and dangerous as grizzly bears, the public image was that of an adorable, cuddly creature that was weak and vulnerable. Dramatic news reports deepened the impression that pandas in the wild were doomed.

We hoped that studies of pandas in the Qinling Mountains would clarify the situation. In the mid-1980s, this region had possibly the highest density of wild pandas in all of China—feces and other signs of bamboo consumption could be seen everywhere—but observing the animals themselves seemed impossible. In order to track and observe the bears, we realized that we would have to put radio collars on them—a job that requires the skills of a hunter, a veterinarian, and a biologist.

At first we set up wooden cages baited with roast mutton, but we had little luck. What we really needed was a good tranquilizer gun. But at a price of $2,000—the equivalent of my five-year stipend and my colleague Pan Wenshi’s two-year salary combined—that was out of the question. Fortunately, a group of zoo directors who heard of our need donated a gun in 1988. From 1989 to 1993, we were able to place radio collars on three to five pandas each year, allowing us to track a population of about 20 animals on a daily basis.

Each month we spent five days and nights monitoring the animals’ activities around the clock. As we came to know them better, we gave each panda a name, usually one that reflected its physical features, such as Daxion (Big Man), Dahuo (Big Broken Nose), and Jiao Jiao (Double Charm). Most ran away when we tried to draw near. I was charged twice, though, and each time I tried to stay calm and motionless. In both cases, the animals retreated. Some pandas were bolder, like Jiao Jiao, who allowed us to be present, but at a distance, while she was eating and sleeping. We came to regard Jiao Jiao as our star. She provided invaluable information on her species’ social life and mating habits.

One day in 1992, her radio signal was fixed in one location, a sign that she might be giving birth. We found her curled up quietly underneath a rock. But where was her cub? We each took up a position with a clear view but kept our distance. We remembered how fierce Jiao Jiao had been when giving birth to her first cub, Huzi, three years earlier. Now aware of our presence, Jiao Jiao lifted up her head, then snuggled down again. A pale, tiny creature, its voice as delicate as a puppy’s whimper, wriggled out from between Jiao Jiao’s hairy chest and arms, and the mother sat up to face us. I held my breath and clicked my camera. I couldn’t believe I was next to a wild panda mother with a newborn cub!

The cub was the size of a hamster, its pink body covered with sparse white hair. The distinctive color pattern of a panda was already evident on the skin. Its eyes were shut tight, but its voice was loud. Each time the infant squealed, Jiao Jiao gave it a tender pat with her hairy palm, cradling it the way a human mother does her newborn child.

As the hours passed and Jiao Jiao dozed, I wondered how close could I get. I imitated the soft sigh of a panda. Jiao Jiao sniffed, then relaxed. Little by little, I inched forward, calling to her. At last I stood at the mouth of her den and reached out to her. She remained curled up with her baby, not making the slightest move. The moment I touched her back, a peaceful feeling swept over me. After three and a half years, Jiao Jiao had finally accepted me. A new relationship had begun. Pan Wenshi and I decided to name the new baby Xiwang: Hope.

The name echoed our feeling for the future of the species. Jiao Jiao’s acceptance of me made it possible to observe every nuance of the mother’s care for her newborn. This marked a new phase in our research. We would eventually demonstrate that, given the right conditions, pandas could continue to survive in the wild.


A male panda almost disappears from sight against the winter landscape of the Qinling Mountains in southwestern China. Unlike other bears, pandas do not put on enough fat to allow them to hibernate during the winter. A panda’s digestive system is like a carnivore’s, so it can eat meat, but it mostly depends on a steady diet of bamboo. A 220-pound adult panda consumes about 27 pounds of bamboo a day, using molars that are flat and adapted to grinding.


A scavenging panda, Zhen Zhen, takes refuge in a hut in the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, where, in 1980, the first detailed studies of pandas in the wild were conducted. At an elevation of 8,250 feet, the temperature can drop to 15°F in the winter.

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