US organization dedicated to protecting giant pandas

China 24

They’ve been described as China’s national treasure – giant pandas draw huge crowds to zoos and five panda centers in China each year.

In the United States, only one organization is dedicated solely to Giant Panda preservation.

And it turns 18 years old this year.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports.

Three animals were in the spotlight the other night in a suburb of Denver. A lion dance helped kick off a Chinese New Year’s celebration to mark the Year of the Dog.

It was also the annual gathering of Pandas International, an 18-year-old organization that’s the only U.S. group solely focused on Giant Pandas, which continue to captivate people all over the world.

“Surreal comes to mind,” Brad Brieman, a Pandas International board member, said recalling his first encounter with Giant Pandas. “Difficult to describe.”

Suzanne Braden started the nonprofit in 2000 on a whim. She’d just made her first visit to a panda center. Giant Pandas were very much endangered back then.

“On the plane back from southern China to Beijing, my friend and I just decided, well, we should do something if we can,” Braden said. Pandas International was formed to help save the animals.

“The first year it was like, oh yeah, another American’s gonna help us and it was like sure, sure,” she said. Then came the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province, which directly affected one panda center. Pandas International saw a big upsurge in donations.

“So we ended up sending dried food, rice, sleeping bags, tents,” Braden said.

The global recession led to a drop in donations. These days, money raised at events, like an auction on the night of the Chinese New Year’s celebration, helps pay for things like radio collars and medical supplies for Giant Pandas. But Braden worries that the new U.S. tax law could discourage charitable giving.

“We don’t know what effect that will have,” she said.

The impact of human activity on Giant Panda habitats out in the wild and the potential effects of climate change on the animal are other concerns. But there are plenty of reasons for hope. Giant Pandas, which now number around 2,000 around the world, were recently upgraded from threatened to vulnerable. A handful of the animals have been reintroduced into the wild.

“I think they’re just as popular as ever,” said Barbara Bingham, who cared for Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling as a zookeeper at the National Zoo in Washington decades ago.

“Just the notoriety, how much people loved them,” she remembered. “People never got tired of them. They’re so animated and such cool animals to watch.”

That love of Giant Pandas still drives Braden, who does her job for free. She recently packed five-hundred-fifty distemper vaccines for shipment to China. Pandas International’s ties to five panda centers in that country remain strong.

“Now all I have to do is say what do you need and I get a list of what they need,” Braden said. “We do have a trust, we do have a relationship established… The panda centers are definitely very grateful for the support we give them.”

But the organization’s work is not done. Because, the woman who runs it said, the needs are still very much there.