National Geographic : 1990 Apr
GIANT PANDA AILUROPODA MELANOLEUCA In developed countries, popular interest in conservation is often governed by what some call the "cult of cuteness." Pandashave been primary recipients of this kind of adoration, but their survival is nonetheless injeopardy: Last estimated at a thousand, the wild populationin China has been declining, and reproductionin captivity has been disappointing.Meanwhile panda pelts sell on the black market for as much as $20,000 each, mainly in Japan. Wei-Wei, a 16-year-old male with the Shanghai Acrobatic Theater, performs a nightly act involving pushing a toy wheelbarrow and having dinner with his trainer-routinesthat struck me as ineffably cute. I thought it appropriateto photograph Wei-Wei on location. Given that setting, I could not help but make this image: It is a statement about how we project our illusions onto pandas. Though Wei-Wei is aflesh-and-blood animal, he is as visually surreal as any creature on earth.