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

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


A post shared by World Wildlife Fund (@world_wildlife) on

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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All photos courtesy of Marie-Claire and David Archbold

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