Behind the scenes of every cute baby panda, there's a mama bear.

On Sept. 4, 2016, the conservation status of giant pandas was updated from "endangered" to the less critical "vulnerable." That's great news!

After all, who wouldn't want to see more of these fluffy little faces in the world?‌‌

Ever wonder what a 5-month-old panda looks like? #worldwildlifefund #wwf #panda #babyanimals #adorable


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The announcement, made by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, came after a documented 17% rise in the wild panda population over about the last decade.

"The recovery of the panda shows that when science, political will and engagement of local communities come together, we can save wildlife and also improve biodiversity," stated Marco Lambertini, the director general of World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The public's reaction to an increase in baby pandas? "Awwwwwww."

GIF via Disneynature's "Born in China."

But there's someone else behind the scenes of these cute baby pandas and all the conservation efforts: the mother bears.

Panda cubs at breeding centers and zoos get a lot of help from their human caretakers. But for pandas in the wild, a strong mother-cub relationship is necessary for survival. Without it, all the international efforts to save the species would have no effect.

Here are a few things that make the mother-cub bond in pandas so special:

When baby pandas are born, they're about 1/900th of their mother's weight.‌

A newborn panda in an incubator. Image via iStock.‌

Newborn panda cubs average 3.5 ounces — about the size of a stick of butter. Yes, a stick of butter! They don't open their eyes for up to two months, and they're basically immobile for three.

Panda biologist Dr. David Kersey, an associate professor at Western University of Health Sciences, explains in an email, "Among mammals with placentas, the giant panda cub is the smallest offspring compared to the mother."

A young panda cub. Image via Disneynature's "Born in China."

Because they're born so early, wild panda cubs spend up to two years with just their mothers.

Newborn pandas are altricial, which means they're essentially helpless. For the first couple of weeks, Kersey writes, the mother rarely ventures outside the den, "spending nearly every waking moment rearing and nursing the cub." During this time, "she relies solely on energy reserves to sustain herself and milk production."

Even as the cub ages and the mother returns to foraging, it still relies on her for warmth, protection, food, and more.

Giant pandas don't live in groups and the males never stick around after mating, so the cubs spend time exclusively with their mother until they reach independence. For two years, the pair does everything together; every day is a lesson in survival.

By the time a wild panda cub leaves its mother, it has all the skills and knowledge it needs to survive on its own.

At around 14 months, cubs begin eating bamboo on their own. Between 18 and 24 months, they wean from the mother and the pair separates.

A mother panda and her cub. Image via Disneynature's "Born in China."

Giant pandas are still a vulnerable species, but their numbers are improving.

The WWF estimates that there are about 1,864 pandas left in the wild, spread across 20 or so pockets of bamboo forest. The species' biggest threat is habitat loss due to development in the region and climate change.

Image via Disneynature's "Born in China."

Despite their low numbers, the progress that pandas have made over the past decade is a great sign for the future.

But as Kersey writes: "Our work is certainly not done. The protections and efforts afforded to the giant panda while it was endangered helped in improving the species’ numbers." The future of the giant panda shouldn't have to rest solely on those mother bears. The species is going to need our help, too.

Want to learn more about these amazing animals? See "Born in China" during opening week and Disneynature will make a donation in your honor to the World Wildlife Fund to benefit wild pandas and other threatened species.

Watch the "Born in China" video here:

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

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The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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