By maywong_photos on Flickr

Get out your panda-counting equipment, because it's panda census time! China's government is organizing the first panda census in a decade, sending out teams of wildlife biologists over hill and under dale in search of the elusive critters.

And it's not as fun as it sounds. Pandas are really rare in the wild — the last census, which was conducted in 2000, turned up only 1,596 of them. So most of panda census-taking involves traipsing around in the mountains looking at a distinct absence of pandas. Although actually, coming up empty-handed might be preferable to what your hands are full of when you do find evidence of pandas:

Panda droppings are pale green and look a little like bundles of twigs. When the team finds them, a junior researcher accompanying Dai does a maneuver that any U.S. dog owner would recognize, grabbing it with his hand inside a plastic bag that he then turns inside out and ties shut. With a handheld GPS device, the team also records the precise locations where excrement is found.

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Each panda's droppings are a signature, varying according to how thoroughly the animal chomps the bamboo. Back at the lab, researchers extract and measure the stalks of bamboo. By studying the samples and their locations, the scientists can get a rough idea of how many pandas are in a particular area. For this census, they will also conduct DNA analysis of the poop.

The likelihood is that this census won't find heartening numbers:

"There is no way it could have gone up," says [conservation researcher Sarah] Bexell, who is also a research scholar at the University of Denver. "The Chinese government is trying so terribly hard to protect their national treasure, but until humans globally get our population under control and our consumption habits under control, it's impossible to save wildlife."

But it's not impossible — conservation efforts have slightly increased the panda population since the 1980s, though only slightly. We won't know for sure until the census is completed and the results are published, which won't be for at least two years. Meanwhile, godspeed, panda pooper-scoopers!

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