Imax’s ‘Pandas’ tracks China’s efforts to release pandas back in to the wild


Qian Qian was born at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding in China. But thanks to dedicated panda researchers at Chengdu, Qian Qian (pronounced Chen Chen) is taking a walk on the wild side.

Her remarkable journey from a captive-born panda to a resident of one of the country’s many panda reserves is the subject of the new Imax 3-D documentary, “Pandas,” narrated by Kristen Bell. It opens Friday at the California Science Center.

Only an estimated 2,000 pandas live in the wild in China as the bamboo-eating animals keep losing their habitat to man (there are over 300 pandas in captivity around the world). Hou Rong, the research director at Chengdu, has worked wonders during her 24-year tenure there. Over 200 panda babies have successfully been born and raised in Chengdu’s captive breeding program.


But the “Panda Mom” has long aspired to have more pandas in the wild, an extremely difficult task. Though the Chinese government has designated major acreages of land as reserves for the beloved animals, these mountainous areas are isolated from each other, which limits the panda gene pool.

Drew Fellman, who wrote, produced and co-directed “Pandas” with David Douglas, learned about Chengdu’s ambitious plans while doing research in 2009 for the filmmaker’s first Imax project, “Born to Be Wild.” That’s when they met Ben Kilham, who has been raising orphan bear cubs and releasing them in the wild in New Hampshire.

“I always would go back and visit him when I had a chance,” said Fellman. “We were visiting him after we did our lemur movie, ‘Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” and when we were leaving he just causally mentioned, ‘Oh, by the way, I just started a project with pandas.’''

The difficulties of making “Pandas” included the mountainous terrain, dealing with leading lady Qian Qian, who didn’t always want to be filmed, and an outcome that was far from certain.

“Once we committed to telling the story, then our whole enterprise is at the mercy of what happens,” Fellman said. “With the lemur movie and ‘Born to Be Wild,’ we were dealing with projects that were established and had many animals going through them. But this time we were working on a project with one animal and that’s quite stressful because we never necessarily knew where our story was going.”

Jake Owens, an American conservation biologist who appears in the film, has been working at Chengdu for four years using Kilham’s method of raising the cubs in a large protected enclosure where they can socialize with other bears and learn how to forage for food and improve their tree climbing skills.

Panda cubs, said Owens, “are as individual as humans. Some of them are really wild and crazy, and they’re really hard to work with because they want to bite everything. Then other ones are really kind of nervous about things, so they don’t want to interact with humans very much. They just stay up a tree.”

Qian Qian, he noted, is “definitely a unique panda.” And she had just the streak of independence that made her a good candidate for the project.

When cubs are several months old, the little pandas and their mothers are sent to a large enclosure with less people and no noises emanating from the city to learn how to prepare for semi-wild conditions. When she wasn’t with her mother, Qian Qian would train with Owens and researcher Bi Wen Lei, learning how to climb trees, navigate in the wild and eat the choicest bamboo.

After she was weaned from her mother, Qian Qian, was outfitted with a GPS collar and transferred to the Liziping Nature Reserve, a 50-acre enclosure that’s closed to the public.

But there were pitfalls along the way, such as when Qian Qian was infected from a bite. But she was saved in time because of her GPS collar that allowed the reserve staff to treat her.

Owens said Qian Qian is currently in the 50-acre enclosure. “It’s a really big enclosure, there’s a ton of apple bamboo. She lives in there now, has apple bamboo and we supplement her with other bamboo just to try to keep her as plump as possible.”

They will be moving this summer to a different reserve that’s pretty close to where she is now in hopes she’ll find a mate and give birth to cubs.

“It takes us a long time just to set the station and train people there,” Owens said. “Once she gets to this new reserve, she’ll stay for a short period of time in a really large enclosure while she gets used to the bamboo and the terrain. Once we’re sure she’s OK, has normal behavior, eating everything on her own and we don’t have to give her any food or anything like that, we’ll open the gate and whenever she’s ready to leave, she‘ll leave.”

He recently saw Qian Qian, who is 4 ½ years old now.

“She’s not fully adult, yet, but she’s getting closer to it,” said Owens. “So she’s fully independent. She came out for apples, so we can make sure the collar was the right size because as she grows you have to expand it and check her weight.”

Though she tolerates Owens and Lei, she’ll only spend about five minutes with them. “Then she goes back into the thick bamboo and doesn’t really have anything to do with us,” Owens said. “She really wants to be independent. It’s awesome just to see her grow.”

Still, like any good parent, he misses the relationship they once had. “It’s kind of sad, just personally that she doesn’t need me or really doesn’t care too much about me anymore,” Owens said wistfully.