How Panda Urine Helped A National Geographic Photographer Score Magical Images Of China’s Elusive Bear

Wait… so photographer Ami Vitale did what exactly to get those photos of pandas in National Geographic?

Well, for starters, she wore a panda suit scented with urine and feces. The suit, on sight, is admittedly one-part hilarious to one part-terrifying. It’s not something I’d want to encounter at a child’s birthday party, or emerging from a lonely, misty stand of bamboo, and it’s hard to imagine that marinating it in a bear’s bodily excretions would improve it in any way. But that’s a human perspective, and when I spoke to Ami over the phone this month about her incredible photos in the August issue of National Geographic, I learned that when it comes to taking a great picture of one of the world’s most iconic endangered species, it’s all about getting into the panda’s mindset.

Vitale’s three-year odyssey to photograph pandas took her to China, where she chronicled the work of the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda. This center, led by director Zhang Hemin (a.k.a. “Papa Panda”), is making significant waves in the conservation world. Their success in breeding, raising, and rewilding pandas is bringing hope to a species (and a world) often bludgeoned by difficult conservation news. And the panda suits covered in pee are a big part of it.

I was thrilled to get a chance to ask how.

When you saw the outfit, what were your thoughts? Did you look at it and think, “Oh yeah, this is definitely going to work!”?

No, at the beginning, we were like, “this is ridiculous!” But it’s incredible, after spending a lot of time wearing those costumes, watching the work that they’re doing. I’m not so sure that the pandas are fooled, but it’s not just the actual suit, pandas go by smell. I got the chance to really study these critters, and get my head in the head of a panda. They’re actually very solitary creatures. There’s not much interaction between the keepers and the pandas themselves. The baby pandas that are being trained to go back in the wild have such minimal interaction with humans. The mothers will not be going back to the wild, and many of them were captive-born pandas. So there’s only a handful that have been released into the wild. And they’re [the keepers] going through these extreme efforts to dress up in panda costumes scented with urine and feces. The pandas go by scent, and that’s the whole point, so that they don’t get comfortable with the human nannies. I really only saw the nannies once, when they picked up a 2-month-old baby to weigh it and do a health check. Each time, they have to move the panda to bigger and bigger enclosures for training, and there’s about four moves before it’s sent to the wild, if it passes all of the tests. There’s not an enormous amount of interaction with people.

So the pandas go to several graduating enclosures before they’re released onto the reserve? [The Center oversees three reserves: Bifengxia, Dujiangyan, and Wolong.]

Yes, the pandas have to go through a series of tests. They’re basically little mini-exams. If you don’t pass, and you fail, you never get to go into the wild. But if you’re smart, and you pass all of these things—pandas, it turns out, after one generation in captivity, they forget all of these things they know in the wild, like, ‘how do you find the best bamboo? How do you pick the leeches off?’ And the most important thing is running away from predators. If you, as a panda, see a leopard, you need to not go up and sniff it. You should run away. So they do these tests, where you put a stuffed leopard, and the scent of a leopard, and an audio recording of the roar so that when the baby panda is in the enclosure and it hears the sound…Well, I saw one panda go up and sniff the leopard, and it failed. But the other one, it ran away and it ran up a tree. And those are signs that this panda is going to do well.

So it’s like a mini-panda Hogwarts.

Exactly! They’re constantly watching the behavior of these animals. They want to know that they’re going to do well. And they don’t want them to be curious about humans. They want them to run away.

The pandas that don’t graduate; would they be ambassador animals?

They could be. China has programs and various zoos around the world. They have a number of their own facilities, places where people can go to view the pandas. The organization I was working with has four facilities, and the pandas that fail will go to those facilities or go to be ambassador animals. They raise millions of dollars for conservation. We hear about how zoos are charged a million or two million to rent the pandas, but what happens is, that money is going back into buying more habitat or reforesting, working on protecting and making these habitats better, linking these corridors. There’s actually a tremendous amount of work going into the actual habitats. The zoo rentals are helping all of that.

I’ve noticed that there’s a certain subset of people that get really passionate about panda conservation…but in a negative way. They get intensely upset about it, and about the amount of money and resources that are spent on it.

There are all of these people that are really negative and asking, “Why do we spend all of this money on the pandas,” but it’s not really just the pandas. I think everybody working there, from director Zhang Hemin, all the way down, they get that the panda is this iconic species. But it’s almost like, by saving the panda, you’re actually saving all these other species. China, in their effort to create more habitat and release the captive-bred pandas — re-wilding them — they understand that habitat is the most essential issue here. That’s really what this is all about. When we save the panda, think about all of the other species in these habitats that benefit. A panda can make people care. That’s the window into caring about all these other animals.

I gave a Ted X talk in Shanghai recently. It was the most incredible audience. My work is much more about all of these issues. I’ve spent a lot of time in northern Kenya and in different countries in Africa, with rhinos and elephants, and I was able to link the pandas and the rhinos and the elephants all together. And the truth is, I think propaganda and sensational media goes both ways. We only hear the worst stories about China, and other Asian countries, and about the species in Africa, and it goes both ways. We’re all getting these very negative images of one another. When you actually go to China, and start talking to people on the front lines, and to people at these conferences, you see that they care too, and they need awareness just like we need awareness.

I’m not denying that we have a ton of work to do. But I think that this is the most exciting time. This is not the time to be cynical. This is the time to say, hey, the fact that you’re spending billions of dollars on creating more habitat, creating more national parks, let’s start the dialogue. This is when we want to be optimistic, I think, and encourage everybody around the world to care.

At the beginning of my career, I was actually a conflict photographer. I covered all of these wars, and it’s really kind of a perfect metaphor. The conservation world is also a war zone in a lot of ways. By only telling the most sensational, horrific aspects to this, it doesn’t motivate anybody to action. It doesn’t make me want to get out of bed in the morning. For me, I’m looking for these hopeful stories, where things are happening…. I’m not Pollyanna here, who covers my eyes and says everything is perfect, but I do think a lot of great things are happening, and if we support those people and those places where things are working, and they become a model for other places, then that’s the only way forward.

It sounds as if the Center has made a breakthrough in breeding pandas. There are people that think pandas “won’t breed to save themselves;” they essentially think that pandas are “done.”

In the wild, they only come together for breeding. The mom can only get pregnant 24 to 72 hours a year. That’s it. Once a year. The female and male will come together just to breed, usually in April, and then they don’t ever see each other again. The only time you really see them together would be a mother and her cub.

In the beginning, in the ’80s, China had such a huge difficulty with their breeding program; they couldn’t figure it out. All of these scientists were coming together. And that’s why you heard all of these people saying, like, “ Oh It’s a relic species, it doesn’t deserve to live,” because people couldn’t figure out how to breed them. And the truth is, pandas know how to breed. They know how to breed just fine. It was humans not understanding them.

They used to go through these crazy things where they used to put up TV screens when they were breeding them to show the male, like panda porn, hoping to get him excited. And then they realized, oh no, it’s nothing to do with pandas having a problem, it’s that they had to get the cycle just right, and also, that pandas are picky. They’re not going to sleep with just anybody. They need a sexy male. They were only presenting them with often one option, the female, and she was like, “I don’t like him.” So then they started realizing they needed to entice her and let her choose who she likes.

They cracked the code on how you breed them. Then they had to understand how you take care of them. They’re born at about 100 to 200 grams. They’re tiny, hairless, they don’t look anything like pandas. And they’re super fragile…they realized that you have to massage them. They don’t have any muscles really, and you have to massage them to get them to go to the bathroom. So Papa Panda spent a lot of time observing the mother and realized that all of that licking she was doing all day was helping the baby when it didn’t have any muscles.

Now they have almost 100% survival rate. They had this ‘magic number,’ they wanted 300 pandas in captivity in the case that they went extinct in the wild; three hundred would give them enough genetic diversity to keep them going for the next 100 years, and so now they actually have about 426 pandas, and probably even more now, because right now is when they’re all giving birth. They’ve surpassed that number, and so now the big push is to focus on habitat and get more of them into the wild.

So that opening shot. It looks almost mythical. I’d love to hear how it happened.

That was a magical story for me. That was in the biggest enclosure [in the Wolong reserve], high up on the top of this mountain. It took hours to go there, and I would go there every day, hoping to get a picture and all the panda keepers were like, “you’re never going to see her. Sure, go on up, but you’ll never see her.” It was raining out, I was sliding through the mud. I was going up steep hills that were really muddy, carrying all this camera equipment…and she just kind of emerged this one day. Ye Ye had come out. And the cool thing about Ye Ye is that, when I had first started this project, she was one of the first pandas — she had just had her cub, who would be the next to be released in the wild — and she’s the first one that I observed with her cub. So I followed this cub’s progress.

You see a million pictures of pandas, and you think, how hard could it be to photograph a panda, but what I found fascinating was how incredibly elusive they are. They are harder to photograph than a lot of other species that I’ve photographed. If you look at Chinese art, you’ll look at art from thousands of years ago, ancient art, and you’ll see pictures of every other kind of animal, but you’ll never see a picture of a panda. They were only discovered in 1869 and the first one captured alive was only in 1936. When you realize, this bear is an 8-million-year-old species, and they could hide and disguise themselves, and that people didn’t even really know about them…People thought that there were only a few alive, since they were so elusive. And at that time, the thinking was, ‘just go get the specimen so we have a record of it.’

So in 1936, this very wealthy guy from New York went to China and died trying to find a panda. He got sick, and so his widow, Ruth Harkness, went to complete his dream of bringing a live panda back. She went on this expedition with a team, and they found a panda cub. The only way they could get it out of the country — they were in Szechuan — was, they said it was a puppy dog. So on the export papers, it said it was a puppy. And that was the first ever live captured panda… It’s a crazy fascinating story, but the whole point is how elusive they are, and I realized that while I was trying to photograph them. The cubs would stay in these tree tops for three days, five days, and I’d sit in the trees wait for them to come down.

They are magical little bears. I was not a panda-crazy person when I started this, and I am now. I have such huge respect for them. They are adorable and will melt your heart for sure, but there’s so much more to them.

Interested in helping pandas in the wild? Check out the Giant Panda Conservation Fund and the San Diego Zoo Global Conservancy to become part of the fight against extinction.