To the average human eye, all giant pandas look virtually the same. Now researchers in China are building an AI program to tell panda faces apart.

Look all the same to me. (Picture: Xue Yubin/Xinhua)

The project is led by the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in southwest China, according to Sichuan Daily. China is the only country in the world that has pandas living in the wild. A survey in 2015 found that Sichuan, together with the nearby provinces of Gansu and Shaanxi, is home to around 1,800 wild pandas.

Using AI algorithms, Chinese scientists are analyzing a collection of over 12,000 images and 10,000 videos. As it turns out, there are a number of visual markers that can be used to distinguish pandas.

The most obvious feature is the black fur around each creature’s eyes and ears. Other characteristics include the way a panda’s mouth shuts, the shadows on its cheeks and its body posture.

How to identify a panda. (Picture: Sichuan Daily via Xinhua)

The technology can help scientists study the population makeup of wild pandas without interfering with their habitat, relying only on camera footage. Right now, researchers often have to gather important information about the bears, such as a their age and sex, by directly approaching them or collecting DNA samples from fur and excrement. These methods can be intrusive or even inaccurate.

“When we were doing primary sorting of the [panda] images, because we had been looking at so many of them, we were able to tell with just our eyes that some of the original classification was wrong,” researcher Chen Peng told Sichuan Daily.

State media say the facial recognition will eventually be fed to an app. Breeders will be able to use it to keep track of the feeding schedules and genealogy of captive pandas. And visitors can point their phone cameras at a panda to read more information about it on the app.

It’s not the first time that facial recognition is being adopted for wildlife conservation. The Kenya-based group Lion Guardians used the technology to create a database of wild lions and monitor their whereabouts. Conservationists are also using AI algorithms to scour social media posts and identify wild chimpanzees that are smuggled for sale as pets or animal performers.