I crouch down low in the grass to get a closer look at the animal lurching toward me. She’s about four months old, the size of a soccer ball, slightly bug-eyed, and no doubt soft and fragrant as a puppy. The urge to scoop her up and squeeze her is overwhelming.
That adorability is one reason the giant panda is an international sensation as well as a cultural icon, an economic gold mine, and a source of national pride in China—the only country in which these Asian bears still survive. Now the whole world is watching China’s dogged attempt to keep pandas on the map—which in some ways has been an unprecedented success.
Like many endangered species, giant pandas have declined as a growing human population has grabbed wild lands for human uses. That problem hasn’t gone away since the species was labeled endangered in 1990. But the Chinese have spent the past quarter century perfecting breeding methods and building a captive population hundreds strong—and leveraging it to bring in millions of tourist dollars.