Researchers, dressed in panda costumes, check a 4 month old, female panda at the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center, for the Giant Panda at the Wolong National Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China, Dec. 1, 2015.
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Researchers, dressed in panda costumes, check a 4 month old, female panda at the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center, for the Giant Panda at the Wolong National Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China, Dec. 1, 2015.Adam Dean—Panos for TIME
Researchers, dressed in panda costumes, check a 4 month old, female panda at the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center, for the Giant Panda at the Wolong National Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China, Dec. 1, 2015.
A panda awaits its check up at the Wolong National Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China, Dec. 1, 2015.
Pandas eat bamboo in their enclosure, Dec. 2, 2015.
An employee dressed in a panda costume cleans one of the panda enclosures, Dec. 1, 2015.
A panda plays in its enclosure, Dec. 1, 2015.
An employee wearing a panda costume pulls a cart of dung and bamboo branches from one of the panda enclosures, Dec. 1, 2015.
A panda mural is reflected in the window where specially made bread for the pandas is prepared, Dec. 2, 2015.
A panda eats specially made bread, that includes nutrients not provided in bamboo, Dec, 1, 2015.
A baby panda rests after feeding time in the nursery at the Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya’an, Sichuan Province, China, Dec. 3, 2015.
Milk is fed via bottles to the baby pandas in the nursery, Dec. 3, 2015.
An employee plays with a baby panda at the Bifengxia Panda Base, Dec. 3, 2015.
A panda and her baby eat bamboo in their enclosure at the Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya'an, Sichuan Province, China, Dec. 3, 2015.
Milk is fed to baby pandas at the Bifengxia Panda Base, Dec. 3, 2015.
A baby panda rests after feeding time in the nursery at the Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya’an, Sichuan Province, China, Dec. 3, 2015.
An employee dressed in a panda costume pushes a cart at the Wolong National Nature Reserve Sichuan Province, China, Dec. 2, 2015.
Researchers, dressed in panda costumes, check a 4 month old, female panda at the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center, for the Giant Panda at the Wolong National Nature Reser
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Adam Dean—Panos for TIME
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Meet the Pandas: China's New Diplomats

Jan 07, 2016

To work in China as a foreign correspondent or photographer is to live in fear of pandas. It’s the cliché, really, like being compelled to write about kangaroos in Australia or badgers in England. In fact, in more than 15 years of covering China, I had somehow avoided reporting on China’s national animal. So too had photographer Adam Dean, who has called China home for eight years.

It turns out that the black-and-white beasts are a great story — from the way they have evolved into political animals deployed in international diplomacy to the growing effort to introduce them into the wilds of China’s Sichuan province. (See TIME’S magazine story on the latest in all things panda.) But who would have expected that covering the giant panda required the journalistic equivalent of method acting? As the rewilding experiment unfolds in the misty furrows of China’s southwest, anyone who comes in proximity to pandas — be they researchers, bamboo farmers or the occasional foreign photographer — must dress the part. The panda costuming is the brainchild of Zhang Hemin, the head of China’s panda program in Wolong, Sichuan, who figures that pandas destined for the wild will be less likely to gravitate toward humans if they don’t see people in people clothes.

Photographer Adam Dean and TIME correspondent Hannah Beech wearing panda costumes while they report on the pandas at the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, National Nature Reserve Sichuan Province, China, Dec 1, 2015.
Photographer Adam Dean and TIME East Asia bureau chief Hannah Beech wearing panda costumes while they report on the pandas at the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong National Natural Reserve, Sichuan province, China, on Dec. 1, 2015  Gu Yongqiang 

So Adam and I put on panda suits, the kind of costumes that even small children would be embarrassed to wear on Halloween. The eyeholes were jagged and the acrylic not exactly conducive to breathing. We were, at least, lucky that our uniforms were not smeared with panda urine or feces, as they sometimes are to convince pandas that these upright, camera-toting individuals are somehow related to them.

Adam, who has covered everything from conflict in Syria and Afghanistan to a typhoon's fury in the Philippines and extremist monks in Burma, suffered for his panda assignment. Baby pandas may look adorable and benignly vegetarian, but they also possess sharp teeth inherited from their carnivorous ancestors. One baby barreled up to Adam and bit his leg. Another projectile-pooped in his direction. Still, Adam enjoyed his days documenting one of the world’s most endangered species, which, despite attempts to introduce them into the wild, may still end up surviving only in zoos. “It was hard not to feel slightly ridiculous dressed up in a panda suit that was about three sizes too small for me,” he says. “But it was a small price to pay to be able to watch and photograph the researchers and pandas so close.”

Adam Dean is a photographer based in Beijing. He is represented by Panos Pictures.

Michelle Molloy, who edited this photo essay, is a senior international photo editor at TIME.

Hannah Beech is TIME's East Asia bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter @hkbeech. Read her feature How Pandas Are Becoming a Tool of Chinese Diplomacy on TIME.com.

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