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Television: Appoinment Viewing – Dropping in on NHNZ’s Panda Nursery

With John Key currently settling important panda trade deals, Calum Henderson watched Lightbox’s nature documentary Panda Nursery to see what our country might have in store.

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What’s it about?

Like a grown-up version of Countdown’s animal cards, John Key this week proposed a swap with China – a couple of our kiwi double-ups for a couple of their giant panda double-ups. “Eventually at some point I think a couple of pandas will turn up,” he told reporters in his trademark ‘relaxed’ style. It was obvious he had never seen this documentary.

Panda Nursery takes us to the Wolong Nature Reserve in China’s Sichuan Province, where an extraordinarily dedicated vet called Rongping and his team are ‘swap raising’ a pair of baby giant panda twins with their mum Ershihau.

Since giant pandas have a tendency to abandon one of their twins at birth, the reserve has started running a scheme reminiscent of Mary-Kate and Ashley’s shared role on Full House – the babies take turns at being the ‘only child’, with the vets swapping them out every few days and hand-raising them when they’re not with their mother.

It’s an extremely time-consuming and risky process – one which becomes quite absorbing to follow over the space of the documentary.

Narrator Craig ‘Guy Warner from Shortland Street’ Parker is a fountain of great panda facts, which he has no doubt memorised and now uses as incredible icebreakers at all those Hollywood parties. “Hi I’m Craig, did you know a newborn giant panda weighs less than 1/1000th than its mother’s weight – that’s like giving birth to a baby that could fit inside a matchbox.”

Who’s it for?

NHNZ documentaries definitely seem to skew towards the ‘educational’ end of the nature documentary spectrum, which is no bad thing so long as you readjust your expectations slightly from the large-scale grandeur of the BBC-style nature documentary we have become accustomed to. If you’re up for something more modest in scale but with a more in-depth, sharper focus, the likes of Panda Nursery are a rewarding watch.

What’s working?

The film certainly delivers on what we all want to see: CUTE PANDA BABIES. In reality, panda babies actually look like terrifying shrieking animatronic penises when they are born – it’s not until 3-4 months that peak baby panda cuteness is reached, but we get there in the end.

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What’s not?

The mating. “This is a disaster,” Parker gravely intones as a sexy arranged panda date at the reserve goes badly awry. Concerned zoologists watch from the edge of the enclosure with the intensity of coaches at a Rugby World Cup final. Eventually they bring in the third or fourth choice, the panda version of Steven Donald, who gets the job done. Quite horrifying scenes if we’re being honest.

Should I get amongst it?

Required viewing for anyone considering swapping for a giant panda any time soon, and recommended viewing for everyone else.


Click here to watch Panda Nursery, available now on Lightbox.

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