2018 Online - Gold

The judges praised Maggie Koerth-Baker for an exhaustively reported, elegantly written story about bringing a species back from extinction. It went well beyond the popular image of pandas as cute, iconic creatures who are photogenic representatives of zoo-based conservation efforts. As Koerth-Baker wrote, “Behind the big eyes and rounded frames that signal vulnerability and cuddliness to the human brain, pandas are real, live 200-pound bears. Bears that can shred your flesh. Bears that roll around in the dirt and turn themselves dingy gray. Bears that grow old and frail.” She told the tale of Pan Pan, who was the world’s oldest known male panda at the time of his death in 2016 at the age of 31. Of the 520 pandas living in research centers and zoos, mostly in China, 130 of them are descendants of Pan Pan. And “just as living bears are messier than their plush, gift-shop counterparts, the reality of conservation science is more complicated and nuanced than a poster or a press conference can convey,” Koerth-Baker wrote. “Pan Pan’s story is about human triumph ─ and it’s also about our limitations. Even the most well-intentioned plans have unpredictable consequences. And we can never truly erase a legacy of harm.” Judge Alexandra Witze, a freelance science writer for Nature, called Koerth-Baker’s piece “a masterful exploration of the gritty realities of conservation science ─ and what it really takes to perpetuate a species.” Nsikan Akpan, a digital science producer for the PBS NewsHour, said the writing was “heartfelt and contained the perfect balance of reporting and character narration.” Koerth-Baker said Pan Pan “became incredibly important to my understanding of how humans are changing the world around us ─ the mistakes we can correct, and those we can’t. I’m grateful to the sources who told me about his life, and to the team that made this story possible.”