Life and death in Wolong

Project: Panda Nursery
October 1, 2003

Project: Panda Nursery

Description: A one-hour one-off following the first six months of the lives of twin giant panda bears at the Wolong Nature Reserve in China’s Sichuan province. In the wild, panda mothers cannot care for two babies at once and tend to reject one, in effect condemning it to death. The staff at the reserve are experimenting with a method of increasing the chances of both twins’ survival – ‘swap-raising’, whereby the baby bears spend part of the time with their mother and the other part in an incubator being cared for by a human ‘surrogate mother’.

Exec. producer: Peter Hayden, NHNZ (New Zealand)

Producers: Jayashree Panjabi, NHNZ; Tan Xiangjiang and Guan Hui, independent producers

Copro partner: National Geographic Channels International (U.S.)

Budget: US$240,000.

The Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan, China, is home to 40 of the world’s remaining giant pandas, of which it’s estimated there are fewer than 1,100 left. The reserve is one of the last strongholds in the fight to increase the population, or at least keep it from dwindling further.

While traveling in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, Beijing-based producer Tan Xiangjiang came across a newspaper article about pregnant pandas at Wolong, which noted that the mortality rate for baby cubs born in captivity is high, especially in the first six months. Tan consulted film libraries and could not find any documentary films about baby pandas and their struggle for survival. He decided to make the first – ‘I think animals have international appeal, and there will always be a market for animal films, especially films about pandas,’ says Tan. But, since the prodco he worked for (China TV Media) produces mostly dramas, he had to finance the shoot independently, at least at the beginning.

It took about a month for Tan to obtain permission to shoot on the reserve. Sony came on board as a sponsor, providing him and field director Guan Hui with HD cameras. (In exchange, Sony can use clips from the shoot for ‘non-commercial purposes’, with Tan’s permission.) While shooting continued, Fuji TV secured broadcast rights for Japan.

Tan’s original idea was to make ‘a daily logbook, a kind of record for the baby panda.’ But soon after filming began, the story took a dramatic turn – the panda had twins. Given the high probability that the cubs wouldn’t survive the first six months, they were not given names – until the half-year mark, the babies were called Number One and Number Two.

Pandas give birth to twins roughly 50% of the time. Previously, human intervention to keep the rejected cub alive was unsuccessful. However, Wolong’s experimentation with swap-raising, which involves switching the babies back and forth between the mother and an incubator/veterinarian every few days, gives both babies access to their mother’s milk and has boosted the survival rate to nearly 100%. Tan filmed every aspect of the cubs’ growth and development, from their struggle for survival to their relationship with their two mothers, panda Ershihao and veterinarian Wei Rongping.

May 2002: NHNZ opens an office in Beijing, its second outside of New Zealand, after spending more than four years establishing relationships in China. NHNZ sees China as a breeding ground of untold stories with growing market potential.

June 2002: Rachel Yu, director of operations for the office, sets up meetings between NHNZ managing director Michael Stedman, head of special projects Peter Hayden and more than 10 Chinese producers, including Tan, to learn what sort of stories are being told in China and how they are told.

Stedman and Hayden’s interest is piqued when Tan shows footage of the panda babies. Impressed by its quality and noting that the topic has international appeal, Stedman and Hayden make an informal agreement with Tan to coproduce the project.

July 2002: Back in New Zealand, NHNZ singles out National Geographic Channels International as a good candidate for a copro partner. NHNZ has worked closely with Nat Geo on several projects over the past few years and knows that the channel looks for stories that appeal to emotions, so a film on baby pandas struggling for survival seems perfect. Now conceived as a one-hour doc called Panda Nursery, NHNZ pitches the project using tapes of Tan’s footage. One small stumbling block in the talks is the project’s prior commitment to Fuji TV for broadcast rights in Japan. The partners work around this easily: Tan retains the rights in Japan and China; Nat Geo gets all other worldwide broadcast rights. This works because NGCI does not have a channel in mainland China – their signal is only allowed into hotels and foreign residences. Tan intends to cut a Chinese version for the local market. With Japan, there is no conflict because Tan keeps the Japanese-language-version rights, and NGCI will broadcast the English version via satellite and cable. NGCI also gets editorial input throughout the editing process.

November 2002: NGCI asks for a budget from NHNZ for Panda Nursery and is quoted about US$240,000. ‘This project was kind of a no-brainer for us, because pandas are a great subject,’ says Claudia Odyniec, NGCI’s senior manager for programming. ‘They came to us, we liked the project and we made an offer.’

NHNZ and NGCI sign a contract for Panda Nursery. Nat Geo agrees to put in 40% of the budget ($96,000); Tan puts in $72,000 and NHNZ is in for the remaining $72,000. NHNZ and Tan both have a 50% equity stake in the program, each holding copyright.

February 2003: Dunedin-based NHNZ producer Jayashree Panjabi is assigned to the project. NGCI’s Washington, D.C.-based supervising producer Jenny Apostol contacts Panjabi to discuss how to shape the story for Nat Geo, based on the three-hour assembly tapes Panjabi had seen so far. ‘Because pandas are such charismatic critters, we knew the material had a lot of potential to reach out to audiences on an emotional level as well as an environmental-message-movie level,’ says Apostol. ‘I told [Panjabi] to look for in-depth character development and…a dramatic story that would hold the audience through the hour – it’s one thing to say pandas are endangered, [but] here are two baby panda twins who might live or die.’

March 2003: NHNZ receives 104 hours’ worth of footage from Tan, complete with a shot list in Chinese. A translator is called in to convert the list into English. Due to budgetary constraints, Panjabi has seven weeks to view the tapes and complete further research into panda behavior, which is necessary in order to formulate a script.

Panjabi enlists the help of three U.S. scientists – Dr. Don Lindburg and Dr. Ron Swaisgood of the San Diego Zoo, and Dr. David Powell of the National Zoo in Washington, d.c. All three are ‘panda experts’ who have visited Wolong often. Coincidentally, the San Diego Zoo has a special relationship with the reserve – over the years, Wolong has lent three pandas to the zoo. Drs. Swaisgood and Lindburg provide Panjabi with info on panda behavior and the science behind swap-raising. Dr. Powell gives her information on mating behavior, and details about the layout of Wolong and how it is run. All of this helps Panjabi to make sense of what she sees on the tapes and write the script.

Panjabi keeps Apostol apprised of her progress as she views the footage. Apostol is surprised to hear what the tapes contain. ‘Things that we look for in National Geographic [were there],’ she says. ‘I didn’t know much about [Chinese] documentary production, and I just didn’t think there would be anything like character development or the human story, which is less important in a film like this but is still important – you want to hear from the people who have taken on this charge to raise endangered animals.’

The pandas cooperated by providing some drama. Number One becomes more attached to the vet than to his mother. ‘Whenever he’s put with his mom, he wants to escape and go back to the human,’ says NHNZ producer Panjabi. ‘It had a soap opera quality. We had all those sorts of things – rejection, will they get back together, and then in the end they do bond as a family.’

Panjabi is delighted by all that she is learning about the meticulously filmed babies. ‘For instance, when cubs are very young, they can’t defecate for themselves,’ she explains. ‘Pressure needs to be put on that area.’

Meanwhile, since China TV Media is a programming arm for China Central Television (CCTV), Tan is able to access the pubcaster’s film archive during the SARS outbreak to source images of flowering bamboo for the final cut. ‘We needed to tell how deforestation was affecting the overall chances of survival for pandas as a species. When bamboo flowers, it withers and dies, and may not grow back to a height suitable for pandas for six years or more,’ explains Panjabi. ‘If there is no other species of bamboo in that particular region, then that sub-population of panda is left stranded and starving. The footage of bamboo flowering helped us to tell that part of the story.’

April 2003: Editing on Panda Nursery begins. The task of whittling down 100 hours of footage to one is arduous, but made easier through the use of autodigitizing software.

May 2003: NHNZ sends a rough cut of Panda Nursery by MPEG over the Internet to NGCI and Tan in China. The very next day, NHNZ gets positive feedback from Apostol, who has only minor changes to suggest, such as ways to create more dramatic tension before commercial breaks.

‘It was gratifying that we were on the same wavelength, so whatever comments came back just made the program better,’ says Panjabi. ‘I wasn’t clamoring to try and get [Apostol] to see my point of view.’

June 4, 2003: The fine cut is sent to both coproducers by MPEG. Again, NHNZ receives supportive feedback – no major changes are requested.

June 30, 2003: Panda Nursery is delivered to National Geographic Channels International, and a reception is held at New Zealand’s Chinese embassy to celebrate the completion of NHNZ ‘s first Chinese coproduction.

October 2003: NHNZ takes Panda Nursery to MIPCOM.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.