Dressed in panda costumes, researchers in Wolong, the home of China’s panda-conservation efforts, check a 4-month-old female cub
Photograph by Adam Dean for TIME

The baby panda is not fooled. She’s just 4 months old, and still growing into a woolly coat that billows at her haunches, but she is old enough to know better. With the pointed teeth inherited from her carnivorous forebears, the baby chomps down on the arm that is cradling her. The bite confirms the truth, that the pandas gathered around her are not, in fact, pandas, but people dressed in panda suits. Acrylic tastes very different from panda flesh. The baby lets out a bleat and peers at her captor. Through a pair of uneven eyeholes cut into his costume, the man stares back and utters a curse in Sichuanese.

We are standing amid piles of bamboo in Wolong, the misty, mountainous locus of China’s national panda project. For decades, researchers in this isolated corner of China’s southwestern Sichuan province concentrated on offsetting plummeting wild-panda numbers by trying to breed captive animals. Then, by the 2000s, the project yielded enough cubs, after endless tweaks to panda diet and better matchmaking. Now a glut of captive pandas has led to what Chinese state media have called “a new phase of socialist panda development”: coaxing captive pandas back into the wild.

The theory behind the panda outfits is that if the babies don’t see humans in human clothes, they will be less likely to beg for bamboo from villagers when they are released into the wild. The disguise seems far-fetched, especially when upright pandas answer cell phones or snap pictures with their paws. But Zhang Hemin, the longtime director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, dismisses criticism of the sartorial experiment he dreamed up after watching a TV show on camouflaged Chinese soldiers. “When I started, no one believed that I could breed so many baby pandas,” he says. “It will take 25 to 30 years, but I think we can succeed in introducing pandas into the wild.”

If Zhang and his staff can restore the panda to its native habitat, the rewilding will be a publicity coup for a nation known for its voracious appetite for animal parts of other endangered species, from rhino horn and elephant ivory to shark fin and bear bile. The giant panda is the world’s most charismatic icon of natural diversity, a poster animal for conservation, whose soulful gaze graces the logo of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). But for its native land, the panda offers an even greater promotional opportunity. Since the days of Mao Zedong, Beijing has given pandas to favored nations, each zoo animal a pawn in international relations. At a time when China’s economic and military rise elicits reactions from envy to anxiety overseas, the panda–cuddly, peaceful, almost completely vegetarian–helps the country present a less threatening face to the world. “The panda’s ancestors killed and ate meat, like other bears, but somehow they lost that instinct,” says Zhang. “That’s an important message for us to send overseas, that we promote peace, not just in China but for the whole world.”

Pandas are also growing into a tidy business for China. Rather than donating the animals outright, Beijing loans pandas to foreign zoos for 10-year stints. The rental bill charged by the Chinese government amounts to $1 million a year per pair, and that doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for the animals’ upkeep. Conservation is poorly funded in China, and the nation’s wildlife authorities count on foreign infusions of cash for panda research and habitat protection. In addition, any cubs born overseas must eventually be returned to China. After all these years, the panda remains a political animal.

The first meetings of East and West over the giant panda did not meet any standards of conservation. In the late 1920s, in the craggy wilds of Sichuan, Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt Jr.–sons of Teddy, the U.S. President–tracked an elderly male panda. True to their times and to their big-game-hunting father, they responded to a historic encounter with the elusive beast by loading their guns and killing it, supposedly with simultaneous bullets. A news headline marked the moment: “Roosevelts Bag a Panda. Cat-Footed Bear of the Himalayas First Shot by White Men.”

The modern era of panda diplomacy began in 1972, when U.S. President Richard Nixon traveled to the People’s Republic of China to begin normalizing relations with the communist country. For decades, the U.S. had favored Taiwan, China’s political rival, with diplomatic ties. Beijing responded to the warming of relations by bequeathing two pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. (In exchange, the Americans presented the rather less appealing gift of a pair of musk oxen to China.) With only a short break, Washington has hosted a burly procession of pandas ever since. “The political implications of having pandas in the nation’s capital are huge,” says David Wildt, a senior scientist and head of the center for species survival at the National Zoo, who has spent decades collaborating with Chinese researchers in Wolong. “The Chinese embassy is just down the road, and this is a great symbol for U.S.-China relations.”

Last August, panda twins were born in Washington. One died within days, while the surviving cub was named Bei Bei, a diminutive denoting preciousness. The name was bestowed at a September ceremony by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and her Chinese counterpart, Peng Liyuan. While Peng’s husband, President Xi Jinping, embarked on his first state visit to the U.S.–amid concerns over Beijing’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea and mounting cyberattacks that the U.S. government has traced to the Chinese military–she celebrated with a piebald baby born no bigger than a stick of butter. The panda hugging contrasted with events of 2010, when, just days after U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he would meet with the Dalai Lama–the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader shunned by Beijing–China recalled two pandas born in the U.S.

Today 51 pandas are scattered around the globe, in about a dozen countries. The pandas still go only to favored nations. Next in line are South Korea and the Netherlands. In October, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel embarked on a trade-heavy tour of China, she initiated talks to bring a panda pair to Zoo Berlin. “This is a very special piece of China,” Merkel said, “that will please a lot of people in Germany.” Conversely, in 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, with a majority of Chinese passengers onboard, Chinese authorities delayed the scheduled export of a pair of pandas to the Malaysian capital.

When Zhang first arrived in the village near the newly established Wolong panda preserve in 1983, there were no roads, no electricity, no phone lines. There were also very few pandas–just 10 in the sanctuary and fewer than 1,000 in the country. Zhang and his colleagues tried everything to boost the population at China’s biggest panda facility through captive breeding. Feeding pandas a Chinese version of a male enhancement drug didn’t go over well, especially for one befuddled bear who found himself aroused for more than a day.

For years, captive pandas went at the mating process backward, upside down or not at all, preferring to gnaw on bamboo rather than sniff out potential partners. But by the 2000s, pregnancies proliferated, largely because of artificial insemination. The focus at Wolong shifted to keeping frail panda cubs alive. When Zhang started working with pandas, fewer than 20% of babies survived. In 2015, 26 were born, and 23 made it past the critical newborn stage.

Six pandas have gone through the rewilding program so far, the last one released in November. Three have died: one from disease while in the final stages of shifting to nature; one probably from a bamboo-rat bite; and one after tumbling from a tree, most likely following a fight with another panda. Early next year, two more pandas will be sent into nature, says Zhang. Historically, reintroduction to the wild has proved challenging. In the few promising cases, such as with the black-footed ferret in North America or the golden-lion tamarin in Brazil, a large number of animals perished.

A survey released last year found that the number of wild pandas had increased to 1,864, from nearly 1,600 a decade before. That’s good news after years of declining numbers due mainly to human intrusion into their habitat. But wild pandas remain isolated in disjointed, degraded environments where inbreeding threatens their health. Their population still ranks below that of other endangered animals, like the rhino and tiger, which teeter on the verge of extinction. One bamboo blight or virus could terminate a species. “The reality for the panda, these iconic animals, is that they’re probably doomed in the wild,” says Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist and professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “We may have to accept the fact that the only pandas in the future will be in cages and stop playing the game that zoos are doing all this for conservation, because they’re not. Unless we put animals first and foremost, instead of ourselves, panda conservation is not going to work.”

Though Zhang is nicknamed Papa Panda, his authority does not encompass designating protective zones for the animals. That power belongs to another department in China’s siloed bureaucracy. China now has 67 panda preserves, but they are disconnected and, in a nation with little arable land and the world’s largest human population, under constant threat of encroachment. Unless the preserves can be linked and fully protected, they may be too fragmented to ensure the animal’s long-term survival. (Because the panda is a solitary animal that almost exclusively eats one food, it is particularly vulnerable to habitat degradation.) Nor can Zhang determine where his pandas are exported. “I don’t decide which country gets a panda,” he says. “All I can do is follow orders when I am told that a foreign zoo expects a panda.”

In 2012, Stephen Harper, then Prime Minister of Canada, used a trip to China to promote lucrative natural-resource deals, like uranium exports to fuel Beijing’s nuclear industry. He capped off his journey with a stopover in the country’s southwest, where he snuggled with a baby panda. The following year, a FedEx plane landed in Toronto with two VIPs–Very Important Pandas–onboard. Maria Franke, curator of mammals at the Toronto Zoo, understands the political importance of her charges. “We’re a very multicultural city with a big Asian population,” she says, “and we recognize that having such a charismatic species in Toronto will strengthen the connections between China and Canada.”

Proponents of panda diplomacy hope the loan money will foster conservation in the animal’s native land. (At the end of 2015, the world boasted 423 captive pandas, well beyond the 300 threshold needed to sustain the population with enough genetic diversity.) If Chinese are dedicated to protecting their national symbol, perhaps awareness of vulnerable animals from Africa and Asia–which are used in traditional Chinese medicine and cuisine–will follow. Even at the panda preserves, there are many other struggling species that could profit from habitat protection, such as the takin or golden monkey. “We shouldn’t just protect the panda in China,” says Zhang, “even though I know the panda is the one animal everyone cares about.”

A 2014 WWF survey found a 52% decline in vertebrate species over the past 40 years, in what the organization terms the earth’s sixth mass extinction, due to habitat degradation, human exploitation and climate change. “You can argue about whether zoos are the best places for pandas or whether reintroduction into the wild is going to work,” says Franke. “But at the end of the day, we are facing a critical mass extinction, and we cannot do nothing.” Humans created this problem. Pandas, chewing on their bamboo, are waiting for us to provide the solution.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the January 18, 2016 issue of TIME.

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