While giant pandas remain an endangered species, their population in captivity has bloomed. Over the last 25 years, an international effort has been led by the Chinese to save the species through breeding cooperatives with zoos and preserves. The giant panda has cultural significance and economic importance to the Chinese, who expect the conservation efforts to bring in millions of tourists (and Yuan). It’s one thing to have a large captive population, in which environmental factors are controlled; it’s another to see the giant panda flourish in number again in the wild.
However, the odds that giant panda populations in the wild will reach their original numbers are low, mostly due to deforestation. At the population’s height, wild giant pandas were spread across Vietnam, northern Myanmar, and southern and eastern China. Today, that area is down to about 1 percent of what it was once was—just a patchy mountainous region in China. Nevertheless, the China Conservation and Research Center will try to reverse the trend. Starting from conception, the giant pandas are groomed for release through an intimate and regulated process. Photographer Ami Vitale documented the routine for the August issue of National Geographic here.