Wild Giant Pandas Star in New PBS Special

Cinematographers followed pandas for three years for rare footage.

Giant panda and his mother in Wolong Panda Center
Giant panda and his mother in Wolong Panda Center.

Jacky Poon, © Terra Mater Factual Studios + Mark Fletcher Productions

For more than three years, two cinematographers trekked through China's Qinling Mountains, filming elusive wild giant pandas. Unlike captive pandas which appear more playful, wild pandas are solitary and territorial and difficult to approach.

Working with rangers and scientists, Jacky Poon and Yuanqi Wu captured footage of the daily lives of the iconic bears. including their mating and courtship rituals. Poon and Wu also followed the training of a young panda born in captivity at the Wolong Panda Center as it learned to be a panda in the wild.

Their work is showcased on "Nature – Pandas: Born to be Wild," airing on PBS on Oct. 21 at 8 p.m.

Cinematographer Jacky Poon has worked on natural history films and documentaries for the BBC and Disney, and has produced and directed his own independent features.

Treehugger talked to cinematographer Jacky Poon about his adventure.

Giant panda cub training for reintroduction into the wild.
Giant panda cub training for reintroduction into the wild. Jacky Poon, © Terra Mater Factual Studios + Mark Fletcher Productions

Treehugger: What was your goal when you started this panda project?

Jacky Poon: Our ultimate goal was to show the world what pandas are truly like living in the wild. There are many misconceptions that the panda is a species not worth saving, because some well-known conservation experts say that they are too lazy to breed, and that it's too wasteful spending millions just to keep them around. But the fact of the matter is that pandas in the wild are not only fearful like a true bear, but also fight for love and territory every year during the annual mating season. The misconception was mainly coming from captive pandas, which, like many other animals, are very difficult to reproduce in captivity. In fact, many years of scientific research and the combined efforts of the government led to not only the protection of this individual species, but also their habitat and millions of other species that share the bamboo forest with them. 

Did you expect the project to take so long?

We knew it would be a challenge to film giant pandas and their natural behavior in the wild. But we didn't expect spending three years. The cost of the expedition was very high even with just two teams of three. And after the second year we ran out of budget. Nevertheless we somehow made it to the end and it was all worth it.

Where did you film the pandas? How big was the undertaking?

The filming was done in two areas: Wolong National Park for our baby training in the re-wilding program, and the Qinling Mountain for the wild pandas. Their natural habitat is somewhat unforgiving and treacherous. Even compared with filming snow leopards in the Tibetan plateau, this is by far the most challenging filming condition I've worked in. Locating and attempting to get close to pandas in the wild is already very difficult and would take days to achieve, but this is only half of the story. The most frustrating part is that the bamboo forest is so overgrown you simply can't see the animal even if you are just a few meters away! In fact a majority of the courtship we encountered just simply didn’t have the visibility to be filmed. 

Six-month-old panda cub up in a tree, waiting for its mother to return from her bamboo feeding grounds. Credit:
Panda cub up in a tree, waiting for its mother to return from her bamboo feeding grounds. Credit:. Jacky Poon, © Terra Mater Factual Studios + Mark Fletcher Productions

What were the highlights of what you captured?

There are many highlights for me throughout the filming period, those successfully captured on film and also opportunities missed due to bad visibility. One of my most memorable moments was filming the cub in the tree. Even for the experienced ranger who had been protecting the forest for 30 years, it was the second time he's ever seen a wild baby panda! And you can imagine for the rest of us, it was nothing short of a miracle! 

The other highlight was when we were tracking the female panda who was leading a male into the extremely dense part of the forest, and despite us being only about 7 meters away from them, they mated within the thick vegetations right in front of us! Me and two rangers frantically tried to find a small opening to film for the entire 10 minutes of them mating, but in the end the surrounding was just too dense and all we had was the sound recording of the event! Such a shame but nevertheless what an experience! After they left, we followed their tracks just 15 meters away, and there was a great big opening with minimal vegetation which could have been the perfect filming spot!

Why is it so unusual that you have filmed mating and courtship rituals of wild pandas?

For the team, the mating and courtship behavior was incredibly difficult to capture. In such challenging terrains, we're trying to film such an elusive animal that is surprisingly agile traveling effortlessly inside the "bamboo tunnels." We simply wouldn't be able to keep up with them if they chose to run away. In my opinion, the most important thing for the expeditions' success, beside great teamwork, was the local rangers' years of knowledge in tracking pandas and knowing the mountains so well it is like their second home! But even though we had all the criteria and prepared as well as we could, a tremendous amount of luck was needed and it took the team three years to capture the behavior on film.

keeper disguised as a panda
Wolong Panda Center keeper disguised as a panda. Jacky Poon, © Terra Mater Factual Studios + Mark Fletcher Productions

How was it different filming wild pandas versus the captive panda cub?

Filming captive pandas however is a completely different story. The babies are very playful and always up for play time at the kindergarten. However, our baby boy who was destined to be released, his training program was designed in order for him to be afraid of predators as well as humans, which taught him to spend 22 hours a day in the tree instead. We needed luck for him to come down in daylight, but once he was down the rest of the filming was relatively straightforward. It was a privilege to see him from birth, right through to his "graduation," a massive leap in becoming a truly wild giant panda.