In the secluded mountainous areas of Sichuan Province in southwestern China is a panda breeding base called Wolong National Nature Reserve, part of the China Giant Panda Research and Conservation Center. Here, panda keepers are decked out in onesies smelling of female panda urine and feces, dragging a bunch of bamboo shoots to feed panda cubs. The ultimate goal of this bizarre but adorable set-up? For these monochromatic bears to go back to the wild and survive with as little human intervention as possible.
Captive breeding has helped save pandas from the brink of extinction, but they remain a vulnerable species.
At the China Giant Panda Research and Conservation Center, comprising several different panda bases across Sichuan Province, researchers and panda keepers have rolled out a survival training course to teach captive pandas how to survive in the wild.
In 2017, the film crew of the 20-minute documentary Panda Go Home headed to Sichuan to document efforts to rewild pandas in their ancestral habitat. The film offers an immersive glimpse into the fascinating process through virtual reality.
In the first stage of rewilding, a mother panda lives with her cub in a training area that simulates a wildlife environment. There, they are free to roam around, and keepers refrain from intervention unless the safety and health of the pandas are threatened.
The second stage sees the pandas subsisting on bamboo and water that has been scattered around some 300,000 square meters of land, according to He Shengshan, a panda keeper in the film. During this stage, panda cubs are supposed to adapt to a natural living environment while acquiring survival skills.
In the third stage, pandas are released into the wild. Most pandas in the program are still in the first two stages of training, according to Li Diqiang, a panda researcher in the film.
Besides putting on the panda onesies which were rubbed on panda’s pee to cover the human scent, panda keepers at the research center also regularly weigh panda cubs and engage in behavioral training to make them comfortable with their living environment.
“Pandas are not what they seem to ordinary people, despite appearing to be very adorable,” a panda keeper explains in the film. “Although our pandas were raised in captivity, they still retain their wild nature.”
However, when manmade spaces and captivity are all these cubs have ever known, getting in touch with their wild side inevitably requires a conscious learning process.
Giant pandas once roamed southern and eastern parts of China, as well as neighboring countries like Myanmar and Vietnam. Now, they are only naturally found in several mountain ranges in China—a tragic result of various factors like habitat loss and notoriously low birth rates.
After years of captive breeding, the most recent tally in 2014 found less than 2,000 giant pandas living in the wild, a promising increase from just over 1,100 recorded in the 1980s, but still not enough to ensure the stable survival of the species.
In 2016, the giant panda was removed from the International Union for Conservation of Nature list of endangered species and classified as “vulnerable,” lowering its perceived risk of extinction from “very high” to “high.” China no longer considers giant pandas endangered but continues efforts to protect them.
Panda Go Home is produced for virtual reality viewing, a novel choice for a documentary about captive pandas. With virtual reality, viewers are able to vicariously visit the remote panda facilities and witness the famously rotund bears in their pseudo-natural habitats.
Through the documentary, viewers learn that rewilding is not simply about releasing pandas into their natural habitat and expecting them to adapt seamlessly to their environment. To give captive pandas the best chances of long-term survival, they need to first learn how to survive, mate, and reproduce in the wild.
In partnership with Real Image Media Collection.