Inside effort to boost endangered pandas

CBS

(CBS News) Pandas are considered a national treasure in China -- it's their native habitat, but pandas are an endangered species, because they're not breeding as much as they should, and it could be up to humans to change that. CBS News recently visited a Chinese research base at the center of that effort.

Tourists from around the world -- roughly a million of them a year -- come to "ooh and aahhh" at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding. On more than 250 acres in southwestern China, 74 giant pandas -- and 68 smaller, also endangered, red pandas roam, and, ideally, reproduce.

Genesis Rojas and her American girlfriends visited as part of a U.S. State Department Chinese language program. Rojas said, "When I knew I was coming to Chengdu, China -- I thought of pandas -- and I'm so excited that we're here."

Roja's friend Maggie Shiffert one day wants to work with the endangered animals. "The panda for China is like the bald aagle for the United States, and so to lose such a big part of your country and your heritage and what you stand for, I think it's really important to preserve that, and to make sure that they stay around," she said.

Their guide, Sarah Bexell, has been a conservationist at the research base over the last 14 years. She said pandas are still in danger, but the fight to save them is "better than in the past."

When Bexell started at the research base, there were just 1,000 pandas in the wild, and now there are 1,600. In captivity, hey numbered 120 worldwide. These days, there are more than 300.

But breakneck economic development and a population boom has turned bases like this one, in Bexell's words, into a "backstop against extinction."

"Well, the biggest reason is we want people to be more invested in them. We want them to come here, feel attached to the animals, go home and do something about it."

Pandas have a notoriously low sex drive - females are ready to mate for as few as 12 hours a year. Historically, that wasn't an issue until their vast breeding grounds were replaced by roads and factories, feeding the world's appetite for cheap goods. Bexell said, "For me, maybe I've been doing this for too long, because I think about every little thing that I buy. ... I want to get the whole world thinking about the impact every single purchase. I want to have the most fuel-efficient vehicle. I want to have a small home that doesn't take up a ton of resources. If I re-do my kitchen, I am going to make sure that wood is forest-certified wood."

CBS News' Seth Doane said, "When you're re-doing your kitchen - you're thinking about saving the pandas?"

Bexell said, "Yes! Absolutely!"

In July, a mother panda originally from Chengdu gave birth to two baby pandas at the Atlanta zoo. It was the first baby panda born in the U.S. in 25 years. Every moment was documented.

Watch the panda-cam.

Doane remarked, "You've got to be the eternal optimist to do this work. These pandas will likely never be set free in the wild -- all of this work won't help the number of wild pandas."

Bexell said, "Perhaps - unless we can get people to care while they're here. Education is sort of the most important part of conservation today because, until we can change human behavior to save space for other species, any other conservation project is sort of what we call a band-aid."

Social change, Bexell said, can only come if those "oohs and ahhs" from visitors translate into real anger that pandas are a species under threat.

Watch Seth Doane's full report above.