A Photographer Spent 3 Years Documenting Giant Pandas in China, and It's Making Us Want to Book a Ticket
Her new book is an unprecedented look at the daily operations at panda breeding centers in Sichuan Province.
Giant pandas are one of the most elusive species on Earth, with fewer than 2,000 living in the wild — but a new book from wildlife photographer Ami Vitale helps bring these compelling creatures to a wider audience.
Over the course of three years, Vitale worked alongside panda researchers to photograph China's national animal at breeding centers and nature reserves — even donning a panda suit infused with the pheromone scents of panda urine and feces to blend in. The result is "Panda Love: The Secret Lives of Pandas," out now from Hardie Grant and Chronicle Books, a riveting collection of photographs that illustrate the personalities and resilience of these endangered animals.
Much of the work at panda research centers involves cubs. Breeding is the focus of the whole operation, of course, and staff work tirelessly to nurture these young bears and prepare them for their eventual release. For the first three months of their lives, they are under constant supervision by a "panda nanny."
The re-wilding process begins when the pandas are about two years old. Pandas bred in captivity have an amazing 90-percent survival rate, a threefold increase from just 50 years ago. Before they are introduced into their natural habitat, they are given a series of tests to make sure they have learned the skills their wild cousins are taught from birth — like how to find good bamboo and protect themselves from predators.
While Vitale was given special access, there are plenty of ways to visit pandas for yourself in their home in south-central China. The most popular and accessible option is the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Center, a retreat just outside the city of over 14 million, which also houses a panda museum as well as several other threatened species.
Vitale spent time at centers like the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base and Dujiangyan Panda Center, as well as the wilder habitats in Wolong Nature Reserve and Liziping Nature Reserve. Dujiangyan offers limited day-long volunteer programs where you can assist panda keepers, and the nature reserves are good for longer trips involving hikes through the pandas' habitat.
Interest piqued by these adorable pandas? There are plenty of other reasons to travel to China now, including a major hotel boom that's seeing international luxury brands and creative boutiques popping up in the country's major cities. Shanghai, especially, is having a moment with the recent debuts of Amanyangyun, the Middle House, properties from Capella, Bellagio, W Hotels, and St. Regis, and the forthcoming Bulgari Shanghai and Shanghai EDITION, among others.
But it's not just about Beijing and Shanghai. International travelers are increasingly interested in the country's lesser-visited regions, which are becoming more accessible than ever thanks to expanding transportation options. Chengdu, for example, has had non-stop flights from Los Angeles and New York City on Hainan Airlines since late last year, making it easier than ever to visit the country's fourth-largest city and center of the Sichuan Province.
Hangzhou is another huge but lesser-known megacity (China famously has dozens) that is a draw for its two UNESCO World Heritage sites and relaxed atmosphere. A new collection of Alila Villas will soon be added to its impressive list of luxury properties. And, in connection with its ambitious "New Silk Road" vision, China has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in high-speed rail travel — over 2,000 miles of new track will be laid over the next year, with more to come, eventually speeding up travel into the country's stunning western region.
Check out the book for more (extremely cute) inspiration.
"Panda Love: The Secret Lives of Pandas" by Ami Vitale
To buy: amazon.com, $18
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