almost a year ago, our TV crew of six, plus about a metric ton of equipment, left Heathrow airport for the wilds of China.
Our assignment — to film pandas in 3D. We would visit China’s Sichuan province three times to film the animals with their young, animals mating and to witness a release into the wild — with each visit more extraordinary than the last.
Filming in the wild wasn’t an option. The latest estimate is that there are only 1,600 pandas living across six mountain ranges in China. A few years back, a Discovery Channel crew spent two weeks filming and got just a single 15-second glimpse of a wild panda before it disappeared into the forest.
And they didn’t have a 3D camera the size of a fridge.
Our first two visits to China were to the panda center in the city of Ya’an, a research facility in a zoo. The initial dilemma was how we’d film inside the enclosures. Giant pandas are still bears and if cornered or threatened, they can attack with tremendous speed and power.
We built a 10-foot by 10-foot iron cage with windows on three sides, which was vital for filming mating when they are very aggressive. Female pandas come into heat for just 48 hours a year. When the keepers let the male into her enclosure, it’s a particularly dangerous time. Watching a male panda in fight mode is terrifying. Normally placid, they suddenly become filled with rage. If they catch a person, the stories go, they won’t let go until one of them is dead.
We were filming the largest male at the breed center, Lu Lu. He could smell the female in the next enclosure and began charging about and rubbing himself against the glass of our cage to cover it in his scent. Meanwhile, the crew sat terrified, while hoping the glass was strong enough to hold back a 250 pound bear.
Filming a mother and her baby gave us the most intimate footage ever. Pandas generally give birth to twins and in the past in captivity one would often die. Researchers now prevent this by secretly removing one of the babies every two days for a spell in an incubator. It’s no easy job as the babies are minute — 900 times smaller than the mother.
For our final trip, we went to the Wolong Panda Centre, which lies deep in the Qionglai Mountains. Once the greatest panda center on Earth, it was destroyed by the Great Sichuan Earthquake of 2008 and is now a ghostly shell of shattered buildings. But at the farthest end of the complex there is one room still in use.
Inside, it’s like science fiction. A handful of researchers monitor a huge wall of TV screens silently observing four mother pandas and their offspring, which live in wild, overgrown cages.
We were there to film 2-year-old Tao Tao, who was set to be the second captive panda ever to be released into the wild. His every move was being monitored by 147 CCTV cameras. It was a panda version of “The Truman Show!”
The reason for all this remote monitoring is that it’s vital pandas heading for the wild should never see or interact with humans — they have to prefer wilderness to the human world. So, when humans — including film crews — enter the enclosure they have to wear panda suits specially scented with panda smells.
Picture our crew of six, all dressed in panda suits, lugging a giant 3D camera rig across steep, slippery, leech-infested forests for eight hours a day searching for Tao Tao in his enclosure, which was 10 times the size of Trafalgar Square. We did this for about two weeks.
But the greatest challenge of all was filming Tao Tao’s release into the wild. Xiang Xiang, the first captive panda to be released in 2007, died after a few months. The Chinese were very sensitive in case anything went wrong. Just days before Tao Tao’s release, we were told we weren’t allowed to shoot it. After a year of filming, to not capture the final moment would be devastating.
There was just one ray of hope: the man who would open Tao Tao’s cage during the release ceremony was the Minister of Forestry — one of the most powerful men in China. The night before the release we ambushed him at dinner and pleaded with him to let us capture this historic moment in 3D.
He thought about it a moment, and then said, “That would be a good idea!” It was midnight before the big event, and we had verbal permission but no papers to get us past security. Eventually, I was smuggled in with a troop of dancers who were providing entertainment.
High up in a remote mountain reserve we watched Tao Tao’s historic journey from captivity back into the wild. When Tao Tao finally did trundle off into the forest, it struck me that the world has been waiting for a good news environmental story. Tao Tao is still thriving a year after being released. And we were fortunate enough to capture it in glorious 3D!