Photographer: Adam Dean/Panos Pictures

Dressing Up in a Panda Suit Can Really Make a Difference

This month, the giant panda, the black and white icon of the world's threatened species since the WWF adopted it as a logo in 1960, has finally managed to crawl off the endangered list. Thanks to a network of more than 60 nature reserves in the mountains of China's Sichuan province, a successful captive breeding program and a clampdown on poaching, the numbers of the big lovable bears have been rising. The monochrome mammals are still listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. So China's latest step to conserve its national mascot is to release captive-born bears back into the wild. And for that, you have to look like a panda… Photographs by Adam Dean/Panos Pictures

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    Researchers at the Hetaoping Panda Conservation Centre in a valley inside the Wolong National Nature Reserve wear panda suits scented with panda urine when handling the young cubs in an effort to keep the bears from becoming accustomed to humans.

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    As well as training captive-bred pandas for release, the center monitors the health of wild pandas, such as this four-month-old female who is waiting for her medical check-up.

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    Like a hotel for bears, the Hetaoping conservation center has more than 50 enclosures for pandas. The government is trying to replant hundreds of acres of bamboo forest to help feed captive and wild bears, who can each munch their way through more than 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of the giant grass every day.

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    The all-vegetarian diet (panda's ancient ancestors were carnivores like other bears) means that the two-tone mammals spend much of their time either eating or sleeping, but youngsters like these two cubs love to climb and play, while mum has another snack.

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    Researchers wear costumes even for tasks like cleaning the enclosures in the steep valleys in China's west. Pandas used to roam across large parts of Asia but are now only found in the wild in a small corner of China.

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    A urine-soaked panda suit isn't always ideal. A captive-born baby is cleaned and tended here at the Bifengxia Panda Base. Pandas are among the fastest-growing mammals in the world in their first month, weighing only a few pounds at birth.

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    Researchers feed two captive-born babies at Bifengxia, known as BFX. Pandas that have twins will usually only care for one cub, so staff or surrogates help look after the other for a few months until it can be re-united with its mother and sibling.

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    The all-bamboo diet presents problems for pandas and conservationists. The Hetaoping conservation center bakes special bread for the bears that provides both captive and wild pandas additional nutrients.

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    A captive-bred panda eats the special bread in an enclosure at the Hetaoping Panda Conservation Centre. The dwellings contain both indoor and outdoor areas for the bears.

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    A color-coordinated cleaner sweeps out an enclosure for a wild panda. The Wolong complex has been capturing wild pandas and releasing them back into the wild in places where they have a better chance of survival since the 1980s.

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    A researcher gets a breath of air while pushing a cart between stands of bamboo after cleaning a wild panda enclosure at the Hetaoping Panda Conservation Centre.