Painfully Adorable Panda Cub Photos Will Make You Want One Of Your Own

(Or five.)

In an experimental attempt to preserve the declining population of the giant panda, Chinese bear keepers at Hetaoping Wolong Panda Center are training cubs born in captivity to survive in the wilderness.

With less than 2,000 of the beloved Asian bears currently living in the wild, China has been working hard ― reportedly with great success ― to protect the endangered species’ prosperity within its borders.

Beyond wide-ranging efforts to breed as many panda cubs as possible in recent years, researchers in China are also focusing on sustainability strategies to transition the cubs from captivity into their natural habitats.

For experts at the Hetaoping center, this is far easier said than done. The process to send the cubs “home” takes more than two years of careful training and observation, and is not always successful.

To maintain cubs’ instinctual fear of poachers and dangerous wild animals, keepers dress up in costumes that look and smell like pandas, and try to scare the cubs with stuffed predators like leopards.

Rewilding pandas takes “trial and error, time and money,” Smithsonian ecologist William McShea told National Geographic. “But the Chinese will be successful.” Five pandas have been released into the wild since 2006, of which three have survived.

Photographer Ami Vitale documented parts of the extraordinary process for “Pandas Get To Know Their Wild Side,” a photo story to be featured in the August issue of National Geographic magazine.

“Panda babies will remind you of your children and make you fall in love with them,” Zhang Hemin, director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, told the magazine.

Take a look at Vitale’s incredible ― and adorable ― photos below.

Ami Vitale/National Geographic
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
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
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
Wolong Reserve keepers transport Hua Jiao (Delicate Beauty) for a health check before she finishes “wild training.” The habitat also protects red pandas, pheasant, tufted deer, and other species that benefit from giant panda conservation.
National Geographic
Read more on "Pandas Gone Wild" in the August 2016 Issue of National Geographic.
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