National Geographic : 2016 Aug
64 national geographic • August 2016 species’ survival in nature. Whatever comes next in this bear’s conservation may decide whether the giant panda becomes a relic behind bars or roams free in the wild. GIANT PANDAS ARE MASTERS of adaptation. “ We humans are used to changing the environ- ment to suit our needs,” says Zhang Hemin, director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, which oversees three panda bases: Bifengxia, Dujiangyan, and Wolong. “The difference is that pandas changed them- selves to suit the environment.” Time and necessity have fine-tuned pandas to thrive in a very specific habitat. Still built like their carnivorous kin, these bears—and they are true bears, according to their DNA—have the canine teeth to tear flesh and the enzymes to digest meat. Because of gaps in the fossil 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 pop- ulation hundreds strong—and leveraging it to bring in millions of tourist dollars. It’s one thing to raise animals in captivity before adoring crowds and another to ensure a By Jennifer S. Holland Photographs by Ami Vitale the power of parks a yearlong exploration 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 fra- grant as a puppy. The urge to scoop her up and squeeze her is overwhelming.