Pandas are undeniably adorable to behold, but that is not what made photographer Ami Vitale fall 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.
A giant panda cub lies on the grass at the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center in China's Sichuan Province.
"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.
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.
“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.”
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.