Few species attract much more attention from the public and scientists than the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), a popular, enigmatic but highly endangered species. The application of molecular genetics to its biology and conservation has facilitated surprising insights into the biology of giant pandas as well as the effectiveness of conservation efforts during the past decades. Here, we review the history of genetic advances in this species, from phylogeny, demographical history, genetic variation, population structure, noninvasive population census and adaptive evolution to reveal to what extent the current status of the giant panda is a reflection of its evolutionary legacy, as opposed to the influence of anthropogenic factors that have negatively impacted this species. In addition, we summarize the conservation implications of these genetic findings applied for the management of this high-profile species. Finally, on the basis of these advances and predictable future changes in genetic technology, we discuss future research directions that seem promising for giant panda biology and conservation.