Eminently adorable and highly endangered, wild pandas have dwindled in number to less than 1,600 due to loss of habitat. Fortunately, a concerted conservation program in China focused on breeding and returning captivity-born pandas to the wild is slowly turning that statistic around. Those efforts are the subject of the new 3-D documentary "Pandas: The Journey Home." Narrated by actress Joely Richardson, the film takes viewers inside the breeding facility at the Bifengxia Panda base to follow a panda from birth, and to the Wolong National Nature Reserve to discover the ingenious ways pandas are prepared for life in the wild. For director Nicolas Brown and producer Caroline Hawkins, making it was a journey in itself, as they explain in this interview with MNN.

MNN: How did the film come about?

Caroline Hawkins: After the success of "Meerkats 3D," which has been screening in IMAX theatres across the U.S., Europe, South Africa and Australia, I suggested to National Geographic and Sky that we make a film on giant pandas. Like meerkats, pandas are loved the world over yet there has been a lot of misinformation about them. I thought it would be wonderful to show people how they really are. The idea initially came from my friend and wildlife filmmaker Andrew Graham-Brown. He had just made a documentary for the BBC about the Chinese panda-breeding program at Chengdu. He showed me some of his footage of tiny panda cubs in incubators and said, "Can you imagine how fantastic this would be in 3-D?"  It was obvious that the idea would work, although I knew from his experience how difficult gaining access would be.

Baby pandaNicolas Brown: When I was approached, I was immediately intrigued because I feel like we are so familiar with pandas, and yet what do we really know? The real life of the panda — the wild panda — is a lot more mysterious than the zoo animal. How do wild pandas live? Are they really an evolutionary dead end, or is there more to them? And how do the Chinese see pandas? I was excited to go and discover more!

Why was this an important story to tell?

Brown: China as a nation is just now discovering the importance of environment. People in Beijing don't want to have to wear pollution masks. The new government (this actually happened while we were filming) has made the environment one of the five pillars of the New China. They've even banned shark fin soup. So they need a good news story that people can rally around. This is their story! I’ve been filming wildlife conservation programs all over the world now for a National Geographic series soon to be on PBS, and the panda conservation program is possibly the biggest and best animal conservation effort on the planet.

The Chinese are making it a priority — they are moving nearly 20,000 farmers off the land to make room for panda habitat. They are planting more trees in China — perhaps than the rest of the world put together. They are planting bamboo. They are even routing roads through underground tunnels so that the pandas will have corridors to connect ecosystems. It's extraordinary. And they are facing huge challenges. Pandas and the panda scientists have to live and work in one of the worst earthquake zones in China. The 2008 Great Sichuan earthquake devastated the region, and while we were there, another earthquake destroyed villages. The roads always take a beating, and we often had to wait days for engineers to dig out the mudslides and make the roads passable again. The success of solving the panda breeding problem, and then the additional success of sending pandas back to the wild — these are stories that all of us can be inspired by, the world over. Fifty years after the WWF adopted the panda as the symbol of conservation, we can now finally say that we are doing more than treading water — we are making progress. We are sending pandas back to the wild!

Hawkins: Although pandas are much loved, there is a lot of misinformation about them. We are told that they are hopeless at breeding and that conservation funds could be better spent elsewhere, but this is inaccurate and misses the point. It's true it is hard to breed pandas in captivity but in the wild they have no difficulty, given sufficient undisturbed habitat. The Chinese are determined to turn things around, to increase populations of pandas in the wild and give them back their habitat. If they are successful in that, they will not only save this special species from extinction but many other animals, insects and plants will be saved with them. Everything is environmentally connected, and although we only see growing industrialization in China, the Chinese do understand the bigger picture.

A mother panda carries her cub at the Wolong giant panda reserve

A mother panda carries her cub at the Wolong giant panda reserve in China’s Sichuan Province (Photo: Yang Dan)

What makes pandas so fascinating? 

Brown: They are unlike any animal. They are black and white so they don't blend into the forest. And yet they can disappear at will, it seems, if you go looking for them. They are bears with teeth and claws and huge power, and yet they seldom eat meat. They prefer bamboo, which is a very poor source of nutrition. So they eat a lot. To see a panda is to be instantly calmed down and charmed, with a smile put on your face. I think doctors could prescribe seeing a panda as medicine — no matter what mood you were in before, once you watch a panda you will emerge calm and happy.

What did you learn in the course of making this, perhaps that surprised you and will surprise the audience?

Brown: Pandas are good at mating on their own. It's only us humans that, by holding them captive, have made captive breeding into a farce that even now gives them a reputation for being unable to reproduce. In the wild they don’t have that problem at all, but as you will see from the film, captive breeding is not at all easy. Panda mothers are incredibly attentive and dedicated. I don't really know why that is a surprise, given how cute the babies are. But it's amazing to see this giant mother attending to a tiny baby that is just 1/800th of her weight.

The Chinese are so dedicated to the panda and to the environment of Sichuan. All we hear about China are stories of ivory trade, rhino and other rare animal medicines, and of dirty coal and huge water diversions. But they are determined to save the panda at all costs, and they understand that by saving the panda they are really saving a vast forest ecosystem that provides all kinds of services including fresh water and clean air. I was surprised how difficult it is to get an animal like a panda ready to survive in the wild. If you just took a zoo panda and released them, they wouldn't last long. They would succumb to parasites, disease, hunger, predation. It takes real skill and training to survive in the wild.

What was the process of getting access like?

Hawkins: Tough! It took over two years. The one thing you quickly learn about working in China is that taking the standard official route rarely works. Nothing you've learned from working in other countries applies. We were extremely fortunate in that we were introduced to Sun Shuyun — our China executive producer — who was able to make the necessary introductions for us. Without her assistance I'm sure we would still be trying. That said, once we had the necessary permissions, we built up terrific working relationships. Our Chinese colleagues did so much to help and support us.

Brown: In China, relationships are personal and built upon trust and time spent together. There is no way you can just come from the outside, fill out some forms and get access to pandas. There was a long period where we — Director Zhang (head of Wolong Panda Organization) and myself and Jade (Chinese producer) spent days and days eating and drinking tea and discussing what was possible to film and what wasn't. In the end, everything became possible but only after we had gained each other's trust. And I think the breakthroughs came by getting drunk together, having a good laugh, and seeing each other with our guards down. We ate things like dry roasted grasshoppers, and that also broke the ice. They seemed to recognize that we were not there to exploit pandas for money, which is common. They saw that we had the same goals — we wanted to tell their story and to do our part in getting a conservation message out to the public. At that point, we became friends, and remain so. By the end of filming, they were more than cooperative. They were as dedicated to the film if not more so than we were. This really is their film.

How long were you in China? What were the highlights for you?

Brown: The crew and myself went there on three long trips to cover the entire year cycle of the panda's life. The biggest highlights were filming Tao Tao's release, and filming mating.

Hawkins: I traveled to Beijing, Ya'an and Wolong to meet the government officials and senior scientists working with the pandas. It was important to explain what 3-D filming would involve and to raise a glass to our collaboration. The highlight: Screening the 3-D premiere to our Chinese colleagues and the world's top panda scientists who all came together for the event in the auditorium at Edinburgh Zoo.

Filming Director Nic Brown, director of photography Chris Openshaw, and rig technician Kevin Zemrowsky film a panda at Wolong

Filming Director Nic Brown (far right), director of photography Chris Openshaw (center), and rig technician Kevin Zemrowsky film a panda at Wolong. (Photo: Yang Dan)


What were the challenges you faced — logistical, weather, etc.?

Brown: The challenges were so many — it was one of the most difficult films any of us have ever had to work on. To start with, 3-D on this scale is so difficult. The cameras are so huge, it takes you 30 minutes to re-position. You can imagine then if your making a documentary, it's not very spontaneous to ask people to just wait with whatever crisis they are dealing with because we need 30 minutes to get set up!

The camera took two big men to lift onto the tripod. To change lenses took two hours. And in the wild enclosures you're talking about very steep, challenging terrain. Muddy, leech-infested forests — and it rained every single day. Only when we came back in spring for the mating did we see the sun and couldn't really believe it. Rain and 3-D cameras don’t mix — if you get just a tiny spot on the mirror (which is huge and sits in front of the lens), the shot is ruined. The earthquake had destroyed the roads, and often we had either no electricity, no Internet, no phone, or all three were unavailable. We brought a generator just so we could keep processing the footage. Also, with 3-D you can’t film past objects that are close to the camera, like foliage or especially bars on a cage. So to film pandas in cages, we had to build our own cage for safety so that we could get close. Pandas — especially mothers protecting their young — can be ferocious. So we often spent a lot of time working out how to get into our cage, how to get out, and what to do if a panda decided to attack.

The biggest single challenge came at the end, when the Beijing government decided that they didn't want westerners to film Tao Tao's release. Our whole film was building up to this great event and we were denied access. Our savior was again Director Zhang, who played a clever political trick. He snuck myself and Jade into a banquet, and invited us to meet a very important official — the minister of forestry. In front of the entire banquet, I gave him a small gift, and we drank toasts to each other, as all the other ministers watched. After that, everyone was afraid to say no to us, so we were given permission to film. Even so, we had no passes to get into the release event, so we ended up smuggling our crew and cameras up in military vehicles who were in charge of  security. This was in the dead of night. There was no room for me, so I ended up being smuggled in a van of local dancers.

We dressed ourselves in camouflage suits (like in the movie "Predator") and ended up being the only journalists who were dressed that way, which the Chinese saw as respectful to the panda. We made the cover of several big Chinese newspapers.

Hawkins: On top of that, there was equipment impounded at customs, bonds to pay, the remoteness ... meaning there was no technical back-up if we needed repairs or extra pieces of kit. The domestic arrangements were tough too — everything was swimming in water, which meant technical kit had to be raised up on milk crates and sheltered under umbrellas — indoors!

What messages did you want to convey? 

Brown: The main message is one of hope: we can save endangered species if we care enough. And the Chinese do love pandas. If they can save pandas, then can't we also save species we care about? It doesn't take a communist country to save wildlife, but we can learn a lot from the "can do" attitude of the Chinese when it comes to setting aside habitat and moving fast to save something before it's too late. We should be rolling out "panda-style" conservation programs for all kinds of endangered species, from lions to whales to frogs and butterflies. I'd also be happy if people realized that the panda is far from an evolutionary dead end. It's one of the longest-lived bear species, much older than polar bears or grizzlies, and if we give it the right habitat, it will survive for many millions more years.

Hawkins: Pandas ARE worth saving and if we prove that they can be saved, then the prospects for many other species will improve.

Director Zhang, head of the breeding program at Wolong Panda Center, with a baby panda on a visit to a local school in Wolong town

Director Zhang, head of the breeding program at Wolong Panda Center, with a baby panda on a visit to a local school in Wolong town. (Photo: Yang Den)

What is the takeaway for viewers? And call to action?

Brown: To think positive about wildlife and make sure China takes what they've learned saving the panda into other areas. Encourage them to think about wildlife as something more than food or medicine. If the panda has a right to live in the wild, then so do rhinos, elephants, saiga antelope — whatever animal that right now is threatened by Chinese consumption. We need good news stories about wildlife, and this is one of the best! You can help save the panda by adopting a panda on the Internet. If you support the efforts of Wolong, either with money or going to China as a panda volunteer, you are part of the solution. Also, consider how easy it is to fall in love with pandas. That's a great start. From there, maybe learn about other animals. America's black footed ferret, or the saiga antelope — see what other species can capture your heart. Anything you do for wildlife will make you feel good about the world, and make you feel that it's possible to share the planet with such extraordinary forms of life.

Hawkins: I think they will be amazed at the determination of the Chinese to preserve this iconic species. Viewers will see how they have worked out their own unique approach to conservation by studying animals in the wild and then applying what they've learned to veterinary medicine and habitat management. I would ask people to see the giant panda as emblematic of the bigger picture. To save endangered animals we must first save their habitat and you can help do that in the small choices you make every day. When you go to the supermarket take time to check the ingredients on packets. Make yourself aware of which ingredients are unsustainable such as palm oil from Indonesia, and resolve not to buy products that contain it. Better still, write to the manufacturer and let them know that you will no longer buy their products until they clean up their act. You would be amazed at the results that small changes in your behavior can make. If we can save pandas we can save orangutans and many other species too!

What’s your next project? 

Brown: I'm working on a five-part series for National Geographic due to air on PBS called "Earth’s New Wild," due to air next year. It's a conservation series that examines how humans are part of nature, and play a vital role in keeping ecosystems healthy.

Hawkins: I'm following the panda breeding program at Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. We're hoping to film the first ever panda birth in the U.K. We have a few more 3-D films in the pipeline too.

“Pandas: The Journey Home” opens May 1 at the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, with dates in Quebec, Dallas, Denver, Houston and many more to follow. Visit the film's website for more info and venues.

Related on MNN:

'Pandas: The Journey Home': 3-D film celebrates China's progress in returning pandas to the wild
'Pandas: The Journey Home': 3-D film celebrates China's progress in returning pandas to the wild