Nightly News   |  November 20, 2011

Panda census a bear of a task

China just started this decade's panda census, something the country does once a decade to keep track of one of the world's most endangered animals. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports.

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>>> finally tonight, they're cute, they're cuddly, they're adorable and they're endangered. but in order to increase the panda population, first you have to figure out how many actually live in the wild. how do you do that? with a panda census, of course. and nbc's adrian mog is on the trail.

>> reporter: they're unique, a national treasure native only to a small part of china, an area the size of connecticut. they're also one of the most endangered animals in the world, so much so that china holds a panda census every ten years. this time, it kicks off in sichuan , one of three provinces the giant panda makes its own. here, 70 trackers will spend the next two years surveying the bears' natural habitat . we followed one of them on his assignment up a steep and slippery mountain slope. he took part in the last census. he said new technology like the gps device has helped cut down his time in the field by a third. look, bamboo. giant pandas love this, so we must be getting close. but we didn't see any wild pandas. they're too rare. only 1600 according to the last census. nevertheless, there is still information to be gathered. what people normally care about is the number of pandas, says this scientist. but we also care about the conditions of their habitat. with this data, we can draw more effective conservation policies. the biggest threat to the panda is still humans. sichuan , one of the most populous provinces, is urbanizing rapidly. but the panda, especially in captivity, is also threatened by its own mating habits. so scientists focus their efforts on breeding centers. earlier this year, a landmark birth of a dozen cubs. it was a milestone with the number of pandas in captivity around the world reached 300, says this scientist at a breeding center. researchers hope the new census will reveal another milestone, that breeding programs and conservation efforts have been on the right track, producing more national treasures. adrian mog, nbc news, sichuan , china.