April 14, 2014 4:00 AM EDT

Pandas remain a recognizable symbol of China worldwide, and yet they are a conservation-reliant endangered species. Photographer Ami Vitale recently accompanied a crew from PBS and National Geographic Television to the mountainous region of Sichuan Province, China to document giant pandas that are slated to be released into the wild at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong.

Be the panda. That is the simple idea behind the latest effort to save one of the world’s most adorable but obstinate species. Thanks to hunting and the destruction of their natural habitat, there are now only an estimated 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild. Conservationists have spent years trying to bring the much loved species back from the brink of extinction, but breakthroughs have been few and far between.

In 2005, scientists at China’s Wolong National Nature Reserve, in Sichuan province, attempted to release a young male into the wild, but it soon died, likely as a result of a fight with wild pandas. That’s when the reserve’s director, Zhang Hemin—dubbed Papa Panda—and his team realized that the captive-born animal didn’t really know how to behave like a panda, and revamped the reserve’s program nearly from scratch. They eventually decided that the best way to raise captive pandas that act like wild ones was to erase all traces of humans from their world and allow the mothers to raise their cubs on their own.

The South Korean ferry that sank April 16 exceeded its cargo limit on 246 trips during the previous 13 months, according to official documents, as the death toll from the tragedy reaches 259 with 43 passengers still missing. The revelation has cast a spotlight on safety regulations in South Korea, one of the world's most developed nations. The Associated Press reports that while one industry body recorded the weight of freight, another set limits, but neither communicated with each other, resulting in a blind spot that allowed nearly every voyage to be conducted while dangerously overladen. The Sewol was examined early 2012 by the Korean Register of Shipping after it had been modified to accommodate more passenger cabins on its third, fourth and fifth decks. The agency slashed the ship’s cargo capacity by more than half, to 987 tons, and decreed that it must carry more than 2,000 tons of ballast water to maintain stability. But only the firm owning the ship, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd., received the register’s report, meaning neither the coast guard nor the watchdog Korea Shipping Association had any knowledge of the new limit before the disaster. All 15 of the ship's crew responsible for navigation have been arrested, and the offices of Chonghaejin Marine and homes of key staff have been raided. Those deemed most responsible stand to receive life jail terms. South Korea President Park Geun-hye expressed sympathy for victims of the disaster during her second meeting with bereaved families over the weekend. “I’ll punish those responsible for the accident and any who committed crimes,” she told around 50 relatives of those on board the doomed ferry in comments republished on a presidential office website. “I feel boundless responsibility.” The 62-year-old’s approval rate has slid to a four-month low amid public anger over the tragedy. The Sewol sank in calm waters en route from Incheon to the vacation island of Jeju. Most of the 476 people on board were teens on a high school outing.
Courtesy Ami Vitale

Today, those who come into contact with Wolong’s captive pandas must first trade in their workaday clothes for furry, black-and-white panda suits that have been smeared with a species-specific perfume: panda pee and feces. Cubs are raised by their mothers in moss- and bamboo-cloaked enclosures, but virtually from birth their every move is tracked by some 200 closed-circuit cameras. As they grow, they are transferred to progressively larger and more complex panda playpens, where they learn to forage and frolic on their own. “This is a very promising way to link the breeding program to the need for more pandas in nature,” says David E. Wildt, an expert in species survival at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

The strategy seems to be working. Last year, the reserve’s captive-panda population produced a bumper crop of 21 cubs. And so far, Zhang’s team has managed to successfully reintroduce two pandas into the wild. The first, a captive-born male named Tao Tao, was set free in a nearby sanctuary with about 13 wild pandas in October 2012 and is reportedly thriving. And last November, photographer Ami Vitale accompanied M. Sanjayan, a scientist working on behalf of the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, and a crew from PBS and National Geographic Television to the Wolong reserve, where they filmed the captive pandas and observed the release of a second animal, a 2-year-old female named Zhang Xiang. At last update, in January, state media said Zhang Xiang had survived the two-month “transition period” and was doing well. Unlike pandas in zoos, “she will have no lines of schoolchildren waiting to meet her nor a fan page on Facebook,” Vitale says via email. But she will have the chance just to be.

Ami Vitale is an American photojournalist and documentary film maker

Emily Rauhala is Beijing Correspondent for TIME

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Write to Emily Rauhala at emily_rauhala@timeasia.com.

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