This is the latest in our One Photo series, where photographers share their most meaningful photo and the story behind it. Also watch our One Photo video here, where 5 photographers tell us what their image means to them.
Photographer Ami Vitale was on assignment for National Geographic. Over the course of three years, she would travel to China five times to document the rewilding of giant pandas. Once on the edge of extinction, these animals are alive today because of China’s sheer determination to save them. Ami needed to tell that story.
Over the last 25 years, the work by the Chinese to encourage breeding and build its population of captive giant pandas is getting results. In its most recent survey in 2014, the government reported that there were 1,864 pandas living in the wild, a 17% increase from 2003.
Photographing China’s celebrated pandas was no small feat. “The biggest challenge was getting access to one of the world’s most endangered animals,” said Ami. “The Chinese treat them as a national symbol, and each panda is closely guarded and watched.”
Ami had to get close enough to photograph the pandas without interfering with their biology and conservation. “It was not just about getting access and gaining local trust,” she said. “But it was also a challenge to work with a wild animal. They’re bears, after all. They have teeth and claws.”
The solution was to blend in. Ami spent much of her time suited in a panda costume scented with panda urine.
Of all the images Ami has taken over her celebrated career, this photo of a giant panda in a bamboo forest in the Wolong National Nature Reserve in China is the one that means the most. “This photo makes me realize how resilient nature is if we give it a chance,” she said.
“China, known for its environmental problems, was able to perform a minor miracle and get an animal on the edge of extinction off the endangered species list. This photo reminds me that there is hope.”
This image has also taught Ami to be resilient and that there is always a story to tell if you persevere.
“Every time you dig harder as a journalist and a photographer, there’s always a much richer story than what you think you know.”
China’s ultimate goal in breeding and protecting giant pandas is to release them back into the wild. That has presented its own set of challenges, as the government must ensure that the bears can survive outside of the conservation centers. This is easier said than done.
“The natural world is under threat as never before,” said Ami. “Population growth, consumerism, and abject poverty with no way out all conspire to ensure that nature is exploited for low and short-term gains with little thought to sustainability.”
But still she remains hopeful. “I have tremendous hope for the future and hope for the planet,” she said. “Because in the end, we are all intricately connected.”
Note: Giant pandas were taken off the endangered species list one month after Ami’s story was published in National Geographic.
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