The Science Behind the Unbearably Cute IMAX Movie “Pandas”

Giant Panda cubs developing their tree-climbing skills at China’s Chengdu Panda Base (Drew Fellman)

Giant Panda cubs developing their tree-climbing skills at China’s Chengdu Panda Base (Drew Fellman)

There’s something irresistible about a baby panda. Perhaps it’s the waddling walk, the chubbiness of their cheeks or extra fuzz around their face. Or maybe it’s their love of climbing, which often ends in a fall—or a faceplant. Whatever it is, their squeaks and coos never fail to elicit a squeal of delight from onlookers.

But there’s more to pandas than their amusing antics. Behind those soulful black eye patches is a species that has spent decades clawing its way back from near extinction in the wild. For more than ten years, researchers have attempted to bolster these wild populations by releasing captive creatures. Now, a new IMAX documentary, Pandas, chronicles the daunting—but adorable—journey of one panda as she finds the wild within.

Co-directed by David Douglas and Drew Fellman, the film follows Qian Qian (pronounced Chen Chen), who was selected from group of roly poly baby pandas for her stubborn streak of independence and affectionate nature. The new film, now on view in two Smithsonian Theaters, is a visual treat with sweeping views of the forested mountain region in China’s Sichuan province, where some of the world’s last populations of wild giant pandas chomp bamboo, clinging to life in the face of encroaching human development. Qian Qian’s story, narrated by Kristen Bell, is panda plentiful and optimized for maximum family-friendly visual enjoyment.

The film follows the work of Jake Owens, a wildlife biologist at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, and his Chinese colleague Bi Wen Lei, who were tasked with the enviable job of raising Qian Qian and preparing her for a wild adventure.

Native to the rugged mountains of central China, the pandas have become a symbol of conservation around the world. In the late 1900′s, poaching, deforestation and encroaching human development devastated the loveable beasts’ populations. Since that time, however, with strong support of the Chinese government, populations seem to be slowly recovering.

But they’re not out of the woods yet. Today, the roughly 2,000 that exist in the wild live largely in small, fragmented populations that are separated by crosscutting roads. From 1976 to 2001, the average size of bamboo forest patch—the panda’s preferred habitat—shrunk by around 24 percent, only recovering by 1.8 percent in the years since. The isolated slivers of habitat limit the panda’s gene pool and opportunities to breed. There is hope, however, recently the Bank of China pledged billions of dollars to support the creation of an unbroken panda park more than twice the size of Yellowstone.

The release into the wild of captive creatures could also eventually help to minimize these troubles, explains Melissa Songer, a Smithsonian conservation biologist. Over the last several decades, researchers have made leaps and bounds in the science of breeding captive populations. “They’ve totally nailed the breeding,” says Songer, who is an expert in restoring species and ecosystems at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Ecology Center. “They can make piles of pandas every year if they want.” But, she adds, “there are only so many zoos that can take those pandas.” The next step is rewilding.

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