Two dozen eager semifinalists from North America gathered in Washington on Tuesday to compete for positions as panda ambassadors, also known as Pambassadors.
All were hoping to be selected as one of three globe-trotting winners who will spread the panda conservation concept and visit Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan province and home of the pandas.
The 24 semifinalists were scheduled to participate in a series of challenges on Tuesday and Wednesday in which their panda knowledge, physical strength, communications skills and team-working abilities would be tested.
The 2012 Global Pambassador program - a three-month competition organized by the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in partnership with WildAid, an organization focusing on stopping illegal wildlife trade, and the Yao Ming Foundation - aims to develop global awareness of giant panda conservation.
A total of 255,412 overseas contestants registered for the contest on Facebook, of whom 59,174 were from the United States.
After the online "PandaQuest" competition, 24 regional winners are chosen in each region, including Europe, North America, the Asia-Pacific region and the Chinese mainland. Four finalists from each region make it to the final competition in Chengdu.
The three winners will serve as Chengdu Pambassadors for one year and participate in a Global Panda Conservation Tour in 2013. They will take a unique journey into the natural habitat of wild pandas and participate in panda-release programs designed to reintroduce captive bears into the wild.
The 24 contestants all dressed in panda costumes when they appeared at a press conference on Tuesday.
Many of them identified themselves as big fans of pandas.
"Pandas are amazing, unique and beautiful creatures. They should be around forever," said Diane Cranford, a pharmacist from Los Angeles.
Lisa Fredsti, 53, a novelist, and the oldest of the contestants, has visited China frequently since 1978. Fredsti said she feels an urgency to protect them, she said. "I support panda conservation because I don't want to be the last of our kind," said Fredsti, with a serious expression on her face.
Peter Knights, founder of WildAid, said that because people can empathize so easily with pandas, they can also understand the plight of endangered species more easily.
"People just adore the panda," he said. "It has big eyes. In fact, many species have big eyes, but it has big patches that make its eyes look bigger. It is cuddly, soft, cute and essentially harmless," Knights said.
By joining hands with Chengdu Panda Base, Knights said they also want to celebrate the success of panda conservation in China.
The population of the giant pandas in the wild is estimated to be around 1,600, a sharp increase from the figure of 1,000 in the 1970s. Chengdu Panda Base, founded in 1987, started with six giant pandas rescued from the wild and, by 2008, had 124 panda births. The captive panda population has grown to 83.
"The number allows us to start to try to reintroduce the pandas to the wild. That is a success story to me," said Knights.
"The competition will reach out to the public worldwide to pass along panda knowledge and raise awareness among people who are both panda lovers and native speakers of English," said Shen Fujun, manager of the Genetics Department at Chengdu Panda Base.
Mary Kate Flannery, a university student from San Diego, has been doing a great deal of studying since entering the competition. She has learned about the daily life and nature of pandas, and she even watches San Diego Zoo Panda Cam streaming live on a computer every day. Now her entire family is following the Panda Cam. "Every day my family will ask me about this," Flannery said, grinning.
"It is an amazing opportunity, something once in a lifetime that we can't get anywhere else," said Kevin O'Brien from New York.
The 2012 Chengdu Pambassador program is building on the success of the 2010 Pambassador program, in which six finalists were chosen from more than 60,000 global conservation activists who applied online for the opportunity to become a panda caretaker in Chengdu for one month.