It ain’t easy being cute.
Although giant pandas are loved all around the world, less than 1,900 of the animals live in the wild in China today. They’re listed as a vulnerable species by the World Wildlife Foundation.
“Pandas,” a new IMAX film out Friday, takes audiences inside an effort to bolster their small population by taking specially chosen pandas raised in captivity, teaching them to find food, sleep outdoors and interact with wild pandas, then eventually releasing them. It’s important — and adorable — work.
“You can’t help but feel for all of those pandas,” co-director Drew Fellman tells The Post of the bears at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China. “If you’re in the reintroduction program, you’re facing risks. But there’s also the tremendous opportunity of living a wild, free life.”
Fellman first learned of the base, strangely enough, from an American. Black bear expert Ben Kilham has been raising abandoned cubs in his home in Lyme, NH, for more than 20 years, and has successfully released about 150 back into nature.
Kilham, essentially, becomes their parent, keeping them safe and even bottle-feeding them during their vulnerable early years and then teaching them how to eat and live in their natural habitat as they grow. He sets them free after about two years. His first successfully released black bear is named Squirty. She’s 22 years old and still maintains a close relationship with Kilham.
“Ben’s relationship with Squirty is really limited to Ben,” Fellman says of the pair’s frequent hugs and other physical closeness. “We were never out of the car when we’re working with Squirty. Even when we’re filming, the camera is set up remotely and we’re in the back of Ben’s truck.”
Despite Kilham’s decades of experience, the work can be scrappy.
“You don’t work with bears without getting bitten by bears a lot. Because that’s how bears communicate,” Fellman says. “It’s not necessarily an aggressive action. That’s how they tell each other things. It’s like if you’re a fireman, you’re gonna get singed. It’s part of the job.”
Rong Hou, a leading Chinese panda researcher, sought Kilham’s guidance and got him involved in her fledgling program. In the film, Hou hopes to have the same kind of success with an adult female panda named Qian Qian, whom we observe grow and develop over the course of three years with the help of a biologist named Jake Owens.
Pandas may look sweet, but they’re still dangerous creatures.
With Qian Qian, the crew — which could number as many as 50 people — were always at least 100 feet away from her. When shooting the panda cubs, however, it was all cuddles.
“One of them wandered over and climbed up on me, and that was pretty amazing,” Fellman says. “You know, we’re really not supposed to pick them up or anything like that, but this one just came up and climbed up on me. There was nothing I could do but enjoy the moment.”