andas: cute, but sexually inept and bamboozled by their own food requirements, right? Not so. In fact, it is life in captivity that disrupts the complex rhythm of panda mating behaviour, with its territorial scent marking, mating calls and complex social interactions.
Most pandas born in captivity will spend their lives there, in China or on loan to zoos abroad. But at Hetaoping field station, within Wolong reserve, in a painstakingly slow process, some pandas are being prepped for a future in the wild. These candidate animals are carefully selected – they must be naturally wary of humans.
Baby pandas are tiny, hairless and incredibly vulnerable. Captive-born babies are removed to incubators to increase their chances of survival, where staff bottle-feed them, rock them, burp them and keep a close eye on errant toddlers – all the duties of a parent, including the sleepless nights. But the babies selected for a wilder future stay with their mothers before being moved to fenced-in habitats further up the mountain. Since 2006, five have been released (wearing tracking collars) and three are still alive. A handful of others are also being considered for release.
Pandas need large territories: they eat about 9kg-18kg (20lb-40lb) of bamboo each day. In fact, bones found in China indicate that pandas, as we know them, have been around for two million years, and for all that time they thrived and spread throughout southern and eastern China, northern Myanmar and Vietnam. Then came the human population boom, and millennia of panda behaviour was disrupted in a few years.
With much of their habitat destroyed, survivors became isolated – it is estimated that their current mountain habitat in China comprises just 1% of their original range. The 70s saw their nadir – with estimates of just 800 to 1,000 left in the wild. In 1980, the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda was founded at Wolong. Alongside government protection of their habitat, this has seen numbers in the most recent survey (2014) rise to more than 1,800. However, scientific models suggest that global warming could reduce their remaining habitat by 60% in the next 70 years. Their continued survival is far from a black-and-white issue.
These images have been shortlisted for the Natural World category of the professional competition in the Sony World Photography awards. Winners will be announced on 20 April. An exhibition of shortlisted work will run at Somerset House, London from 21 April-7 May. worldphoto.org