They might be easy to come by on YouTube, but panda sightings in the wild are nearly once in a lifetime—making the bears awfully hard to count. But researchers in China are trying anyway, in the first census of the endangered population in 10 years.
Pandas are shy and solitary by nature. “I’ve been working in these mountains for 20 years, and I’ve never seen a panda in the wild,” Dai Bo, a biologist with China’s forestry ministry, told the Los Angeles Times. So, for the next year, more than 100 people will be scrambling over 32,000 sq. km of mountains in central China, not looking up for the bamboo-munching mammals, but down, for their pale-green droppings.
By analyzing those droppings, scientists can estimate how many pandas are living in an area. In 2000-01, when the animals were last counted, the number stood at around 1,600. Researchers are hoping that when results from the current survey are published in 2013, they will show that conservation efforts, such as a quadrupling of nature reserves and strict anti-poaching laws, have made a difference.