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This Photographer Dressed Like a Panda to Snap Candids of Bears in the Wild

These adorable and surreal photos are the result of three years documenting China's panda rewilding facilities.
Ye Ye, a 16-year-old giant panda, lounges in a wild enclosure at a conservation center in Wolong Nature Reserve. Her name, whose characters represent Japan and China, celebrates the friendship between the two nations. Ye Ye’s cub Hua Yan (Pretty Girl) is being trained for release into the wild. © Ami Vitale / National Geographic

Wearing a black and white full body suit and face mask to imitate a Giant Panda's fur patterns, photographer Ami Vitale crouches in the forest of the Wolong’s Hetaoping center, an organization dedicated to training pandas to survive in the wild. These conditions are necessary for her to capture the up-close images of the gentle giants in the August issue of National Geographic Magazine. "It was often very difficult getting the access needed to make images that were special, but it made it all the more rewarding when I was able to capture those unique moments," Vitale tells The Creators Project.


All of Vitale's shots are candid, shot patiently over the course of three years at China's panda rewilding facilities. To Vitale, it was worth all the trouble. "[The pandas] will melt your heart. They smell like wet puppies and they make the most incredible sounds. Sometimes they squeak, other times its a growl, or a bark or maybe a huff," she recounts. "Their fur is not soft like a bunny but coarse to keep them insulated in those cold, wet climates." Vitale boils down the unreal cuteness of baby pandas, as well as the absurd lengths Chinese wildlife workers go to raise them wild.

According to the National Geographic Magazine feature, workers at Wolong’s Hetaoping center must dress like their subjects in order to avoid teaching them to feel safe around humans or so the pandas don't become used to the sight or smell of a human. Check out a selection from the set, the documentary Vitale shot for National Geographic, and a bonus portrait of the photographer in her panda suit, below.

Ami Vitale dressed as a panda to mask human contact while capturing candid photos of Wolong’s Hetaoping center's bears. Image courtesy the artist

Zhang Hemin—"Papa Panda" to his staff—poses with cubs born in 2015 at Bifengxia Panda Base. "Some local people say giant pandas have magic powers," says Zhang, who directs many of China’s panda conservation efforts. "To me, they simply represent beauty and peace." © Ami Vitale / National Geographic

Video by @amivitale on assignment for @natgeo. Baby pandas Sen Sen and Xin Xin playing in a tree at the Gengda Giant Panda base that is part of the Wolong Natural Reserve and China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. With their mothers busy eating 13-16 hours a day, panda cubs avoid predators by heading to the safest place they can find, the tops of trees. Read the @natgeo story in the August issue and online through the link in my profile. @natgeo @natgeocreative @thephotosociety @nikonusa #nikonusa #nikonlove #nikonnofilter #nikonambassador #nikond4s #gengda #wolong #sichuan #china #climatechange #conservation #natureisspeaking #savetheplanet #photooftheday #photojournalism #panda #pandas #babypanda #ipanda #giantpanda #pandacub #amivitale

A video posted by Ami Vitale (@amivitale) on Jul 18, 2016 at 2:58pm PDT


Is a panda cub fooled by a panda suit? That’s the hope at Wolong’s Hetaoping center, where captive-bred bears training for life in the wild are kept relatively sheltered from human contact, even during a rare hands-on checkup. © Ami Vitale / National Geographic

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. © Ami Vitale / National Geographic

In a large forested enclosure of the Wolong Reserve, panda keepers Ma Li and Liu Xiaoqiang listen for radio signals from a collared panda training to be released to the wild. Tracking can tell them how the cub is faring in the rougher terrain up the mountain. © Ami Vitale / National Geographic

See more of Ami Vitale's work on her website.


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