One Giant Panda’s Incredible Journey

Meet the million dollar babies. China’s most treasured trophy and today’s most iconic species – the giant panda. Join us in 3D as we travel with unprecedented access to the remote Wolong Valley and the Bifengxia panda breeding center in Western China where we witness the extraordinary steps being taken to return pandas to the wild.

In the 1985, the World Wildlife Fund conducted a survey that exposed how low the giant panda population was. With only 1,100 pandas left in the wild and just a handful in captivity, the panda was on the Red List – critically endangered and on the brink of extinction. Many had little hope for the survival of the species and resigned themselves to the fact that the panda would soon be relegated to the history books. The outlook was indeed grim. Habitat destruction, poaching, disease, and human encroachment had caused numbers to dwindle at an alarming rate, yet for the Chinese losing the panda forever was unthinkable and the quest to save the species began. Twenty-eight years later, after a mammoth conservation effort and millions of yuen/dollars of investment an extraordinary environmental turnaround is taking place and it appears that the future of the giant panda is looking distinctly brighter.

The challenge has been great. Very little was known about the behavior and breeding patterns of these shy mountain creatures. Breeding them in captivity was initially a case of trial and error but Zhang Hemin, Director of China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) and his team of veterinary surgeons, scientists, and keepers are a determined bunch. Combining lessons learned from observing wild pandas together with techniques as unorthodox as panda pornography, panda nannies, and panda suit disguises they are now successfully breeding record numbers.

In this film we witness how captive-breeding takes place before we move to the Wolong Valley where the devastating 2008 earthquake has left a surprising opportunity in its destructive wake.  It is here, away from the tourist gaze, among the ruins and derelict buildings of the Wolong Panda Base that Zhang Hemin has mounted his ground-breaking ‘wild training’ program. Pandas born here are raised the natural way, by their mothers, who teach them the skills needed to survive in the mountains. Tao Tao is the first young panda to complete Zhang’s wild training program. We follow him on his journey and witness him take his first tentative steps to freedom, carrying with him the hopes and good wishes of the Chinese people and panda lovers the world over.

Tune in to Giant Pandas Sunday at 9P on Nat Geo WILD.