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In China, Scientists Attempting To Rewild Pandas Involves Fake Panda Costumes

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Scientists in China are trying to do something incredible. They want to breed pandas in captivity and then hopefully release them through a process known as rewilding.

Photographer Ami Vitale spent three years visiting southwestern China, getting to know the panda bears and the scientists trying to help them. One of the biggest challenges is teaching the bears to run from predators. Turns out pandas have to go through an elaborate training program for two years.

And then if they pass all these tests, then they get to go into the wild. A key requirement for the pandas is learning to be wary of humans, which meant that if Vitale was going to observe them, she had to go in disguise.

AMI VITALE: And so we all had to wear these panda costumes, which honestly look like you could kidnap somebody in them. They're hilarious. And they're scented with urine - (laughter) panda urine. But don't worry. The pandas are vegetarians. So it wasn't too bad.

MARTIN: Vitale wanted to capture images of the animals in the rewilding enclosures. But even when you know where to find them, pandas are extremely hard to spot.

VITALE: I would trek every day up these huge mountains - very slippery - with all my gear. And they would always say, you'll never see them. You'll never see them. And one day, I got very lucky. And Ye Ye and her cub that's going to be released into the wild just showed her - she came out of the mist. It was magical.

MARTIN: The scientists are still learning. Of the first five animals released, two died. And development threatens conservation efforts. Plus, other animals compete with pandas for the best grazing areas. But Vitale says if the program is successful, it could do so much more than create a sustainable future for China's beloved bears.

VITALE: It's actually a spiritual ambassador for all these other species that are going to benefit because they're creating more habitat, linking existing corridors and investing a lot of money into reforesting places. And the pandas - kind of the big species. But every other little critter living there is going to benefit from this, including people.

MARTIN: We reached photographer Amy Vitale by Skype, on location in northern Kenya, where she's working on her next project. Her photos appear in the August issue of National Geographic. You can see a few of them on our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.