Recent success in breeding giant pandas in captivity has encouraged panda conservationists to believe that the ex situ population is ready to serve as a source for supporting the wild population. In this study, we used 11 microsatellite DNA markers to assess the amount and distribution of genetic variability present in the two largest captive populations (Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Sichuan Province and the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong, Sichuan Province). The data were compared with those samples from wild pandas living in two key giant panda nature reserves (Baoxing Nature Reserve and Wanglang Nature Reserve). The results show that the captive populations have retained lower levels of allelic diversity and heterozygosity compared to isolated wild populations. However, low inbreeding coefficients indicate that captive populations are under careful genetic management. Excessive heterozygosity suggests that the two captive populations have experienced a genetic bottleneck, presumably caused by founder effects. Moreover, evidence of increased genetic divergence demonstrates restricted breeding options within facilities. Based on these results, we conclude that the genetic diversity in the captive populations is not optimal. Introduction of genetic materials from wild pandas and improved exchange of genetic materials among institutions will be necessary for the captive pandas to be representative of the wild populations.