The Sony World Photography Awards, an annual competition hosted by the World Photography Organization, just announced that photographer Ami Vitale made the shortlist of winners for 2017. Seen by few, but beloved by billions, the giant panda is one of the most recognised animals on the planet. It’s hard to imagine, but these animals, who roamed the earth for eight million years, were only discovered in the last century. Unknown, and hidden from the western world for millions of years, even today they are seen by few but known by most everyone. So secretive and mysterious was its solitary life, lived in the thickest of bamboo, in the highest of mountains, in mist and rain, governed and guided by smell rather than sight, that the giant panda has eluded easy answers, even while making its way into everyone’s heart. Giant pandas have a secret life governed by their nose, and their daily diet and breeding behaviours have made them vulnerable in today’s world. With a diet almost entirely composed of the leaves, stems and shoots of various bamboo species, their reliance on bamboo left them vulnerable to any loss of habitat. Found only in central China, the entire species came dangerously close to extinction. Scientists considered the giant panda a relic species; shy, and difficult to breed in captivity. But now there is a glimmer of hope, as years of research are finally paying off. In a region where bad environmental news is common, China cracked the code and is on its way to successfully saving its most famous ambassador.

Photographer: Ami Vitale