Widespread farming, logging and urban expansion into their homeland in recent decades are threatening the species' last 1,000 members. With their habitat divided, they reproduce slowly and will have problems finding new areas for food should their supplies dwindle.
Conservation International (CI), a non-profit organisation working to protect the Earth's ecosystems and biodiversity, has been trying since December 2010 to resolve the problems facing pandas in Daxiangling, Sichuan - one of the six mountains where the animals are found.
They have been building panda "corridors" - strips of undisturbed land through which pandas can comfortably travel - protecting freshwater resources and also establishing new, greener livelihoods for local people.
Under the Cathay Pacific Green Explorer programme, 40students visited project sites last month. The 16- to 18-year-olds, from Hong Kong and nations such as Germany and South Africa, saw how conservation efforts are bringing tangible and sustainable benefits to both pandas and local communities.
In June, CI began planting trees, including bamboo, fir and birch, to help link separated areas of forest and boost the density of trees in existing ones.
The two-year-old saplings will eventually be planted across two mountains, the panda corridor and surrounding areas - a total of 2,020 sq km, according to the standards set up by the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance, an initiative that promotes activities such as forest protection, restoration and planting.
"By constructing the corridors, we are helping to establish genetic exchange of Qionglai and Daxiangling mountains' pandas and consequently increase the number of giant panda," says Yang Hanmei, the project's co-ordinator.
Reforestation creates a perfect habitat for giant pandas. "They feed mainly on bamboo, but also need taller trees to provide shade and to improve soil quality." she says.
Nearly 4,800 people from villages and townships nearby, including Sanhe township and the villages of Changfu and Qiaoxsi, have given up their land to the project. So the CI has trained villagers to make a living by keeping bees, rather than relying on logging, farming and herding.
Bee farming also helps pandas since a pristine environment is necessary to produce high-quality honey; the farmers know they must keep freshwater resources clean and avoid contaminating the soil by using fertilisers and pesticides.
Changfu village bought 100 portable frame hives last month and already villagers have harvested their first 500kg of honey. "This new business is relatively easy to carry out and not physically demanding," says project co-ordinator Zhang Jing. "While traditional, fixed-comb hives can be harvested only once a year, these portable frame hives are ready in 10 days, which is more reliable and efficient."
Such eco-friendly honey qualifies for a lucrative organic certification from the Beijing Continental Hengtong Certification Company. A similar CI project in Pingwu showed honey farming can provide a good, steady income. With the organic label, the price of a 600g jar of honey can rise from 10 yuan to 35yuan (about HK$12 to HK$43).
"We cannot push forward environmental conservation without considering the people that are affected," Yang says. "We have to get them involved to make projects sustainable."
She hopes a widely compatible scheme will be used across southwest China. "We want to improve peoples' living standards without exploiting and exhausting the local natural resources."
Green Explorer students were impressed by CI's conservation and community efforts. "A lot of people think of environmental sustainability as isolated and detrimental to our economy and development," says Teresa Yui, from Australia. "But CI taught us that it can work - we can preserve the environment and, at the same time, create jobs."
Lye Hwei Mynn, from Malaysia, says: "If the locals understand why and how such conservation work is carried out, they can see they will not be adversely affected and can benefit."