Giant pandas have lost vast areas of their natural habitat. The loss is because of rapid economic development in China, a nation that is making the fastest transition in human history from an agrarian to industrialized society. Only 1,600 giant pandas remain in the wild, with just more than 300 in zoos and captive breeding programs. The goal is shifting to moving pandas from captive breeding programs into native habitats.
A Symbol of Hope and Opportunity to Conserve Habitat
Over the last few decades, “panda diplomacy” has been used in China to foster positive relations with foreign countries—an innovative program that loans giant pandas to zoos across the world. The policy allows millions of people to experience pandas firsthand, and this program earns significant revenues to support panda conservation in China.
At the end of 2012, there were approximately 330 giant pandas in captivity, demonstrating the Chinese government’s commitment and ability to breed pandas in captivity. Years of work at the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province—located in the heart of the native habitat for pandas—was necessary to understand the basic science of panda reproduction. Important lessons learned include methods for improving breeding success, increasing cub survival at birth, and raising cubs.
The new panda conservation chapter has begun with a reintroduction program: to release captive born pandas into the wild. The reintroduction training teaches pandas necessary skills for survival in the wild, including how to mark territory, forage for food, build “nests” for sleeping, recognize and escape predators (such as leopards), and how to cope with parasites. The pandas have little contact with humans, so that they are fully prepared for life in the wild.
Reintroduction training was originally trialed in the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province in 2005. Starting in 2014, the China Conservation and Research Center for the giant panda, headquartered in the Wolong Nature Reserve, will start to reintroduce a few pandas per year for the next few years. Panda Mountain—a program under the Environmental Alliance-US China Environmental Fund— is working to integrate planning, conservation, education, training, community engagement, and sustainable development into the work being done in Wolong.
Panda Mountain believes the expanding reintroduction program will create a new opportunity and catalyst for habitat conservation. When the public reflects on what these young pandas will need to survive, there will be growing awareness and commitment to give these reintroduced pandas a home —and thus a game-changing historic opportunity to promote the restoration of panda habitat. Yet, a captive breeding program and a reintroduction program—however successful—are not enough in isolation. Active conservation of giant panda habitat is fundamentally vital to ensure the survival of the species.
Panda Mountain’s focus in Wolong Nature Reserve is promoting ecological restoration to restore and conserve the giant panda’s habitat and biodiversity in the mountain ecosystems in which pandas live. But currently, restoration is under-funded and under-researched. Panda Mountain is establishing a model forest restoration program at Wolong to raise awareness and demonstrate how to ecologically restore degraded habitat in China, and throughout the world.
Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries—a World Heritage Site encompassing approximately 10,000 square kilometers (3,600 square miles)—is the world’s largest remaining contiguous block of giant panda habitat. The Wolong Nature Reserve is the lead protected area within the Sanctuaries, and covers 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) west of Chengdu, the nearest big city and a popular tourist destination because of the giant pandas. Wolong Nature Reserve was established in 1963.
Changing China—threats and opportunities
Over time, the growth of agrarian societies and human population reduced the range of giant pandas. In the 20th century, pandas were forced to retreat to a narrow crescent of land surrounding the north and western edges of the Sichuan Basin. Given the panda’s reliance on bamboo as its primary food source, this endangered animal has no place to go—lands either side of this sliver of habitat cannot sustain giant pandas. East of the current range are densely populated areas of China where panda habitat is being continually fragmented and reduced. Further west of the Sichuan Basin, the winters on the Tibetan Himalayan plateau are too severe for bamboo to survive. West of Qinling, the mountains of Shanxi are vast, arid areas that are not able to support the bamboo and temperate vegetation required for panda habitat. Since the panda has nowhere to go, their survival depends on conserving this precious piece of habitat, restoring the degraded lands, and stopping the process of habitat fragmentation.
Giant pandas are among the most captivating animals on the planet, particularly because of their distinctive appearance and markings and their easy-going, calm manner. China is taking action to save the species, which is so closely related to its own identity and global face. The survival of pandas in the wild depends entirely on the ability to save its habitat.
As an emerging global power, China is providing leadership and business models that embrace sustainability—models that balance and integrate development and conservation—and by so doing, preserving what remains of China’s wild places and wildlife, as well as restoring the degraded land. Without proper planning to mitigate the affects of rapid industrialization and to address the affects of climate change, the preservation of critically endangered species such as the giant panda will be put in serious jeopardy.
Climate change poses additional threats to pandas as recent research indicates that climate change can directly threaten bamboo forests. Even the most optimistic scenarios show that bamboo die-offs would effectively cause prime panda habitat to become inhospitable by the end of the 21st century.
Beyond applicability to conserve habitat, ecological restoration has significant value for ecosystem services. In China, restoring natural capital through well-planned ecological programs serves both people and wildlife. As Jonathan Hughes, Program Director & Councillor for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Natural Capital Program said, “by valuing natural capital in a similar way to financial, manufactured, social, and human capital, we can make decisions on the stewardship of the natural environment based on hard-nosed economics, and not just on the vitally important moral case for saving nature for nature’s sake.” The importance of natural capital is now seen as part of a new wave of environmentalism that is especially applicable to China where a growing economy has a rapidly increasing middle class to support. 1
The Importance of Sichuan
Sichuan is home to over 75 percent of the world’s wild giant pandas and also home to the China Conservation and Research Center for the giant panda, China’s leading captive panda center, caring for 187 pandas.
Outside of the world’s tropical rainforests, the protected areas within the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries are among the most biologically diverse lands in the world, supporting up to 6,000 plant species. Sichuan as a whole is China’s province with the most animal species, and a highly diverse land area that provides refuge for a handful of critically endangered species, including red pandas, snow leopards, clouded leopards, and the giant panda.
For over two decades, Sichuan Province has increased the institutional capacity for protected area management (assisted by many international programs). Comparatively, the field of ecological restoration is under-developed due to a lack of training and practical field experience. Panda Mountain’s programs for ecological restoration are working to change this.
Challenges facing people and conservation in China and the need to re-focus efforts in the 21st century
In comparison to the tremendous success of China’s captive breeding programs, less has been accomplished to protect China’s wild pandas over the last 30 years. The giant panda is listed as an endangered species under the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, and is a Class 1 Protected Animal in China. Under the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Wildlife (1989), Class 1 species are protected by the Central Government. With the effects of climate change already being felt, plus ongoing environmental degradation from economic growth, wild giant pandas remain at great risk of extinction.
Fundamentally, captive breeding—with all those fuzzy little black and white cubs—is much easier to sell to the public, governments, and NGOs than the long-term task of habitat conservation. There is a reassuring and well-defined sense of success when dealing with the breeding of captive pandas; comparatively there are numerous complexities and uncertainties for long-term preservation of forests to sustain wild pandas. Institutions and government officials tend to be more supportive of breeding programs that carry tangible results than they are of hard-to-quantify, long-term habitat protection. Consequently, land conservation is understaffed and underfunded. Looking forward, progress in critical conservation efforts for the pandas require habitat conservation and restoration —this is necessary for the pandas to survive as a species.
Other threats to vital panda habitat are unsustainable livelihoods by local villagers, mass tourism, and highway development in the absence of sufficient wildlife corridors. Further complicating conservation efforts, the devastating May 2008 Sichuan earthquake—the epicenter of the largest natural disasters in modern China— was just a few kilometers from the Wolong Nature Reserve. In the aftermath of the earthquake, impoverished villagers have turned to grazing livestock in order to survive. Livestock grazing degrades habitat, and if it persists, it will prevent land from being able to restore itself.
Furthermore, Wolong is ill-prepared to manage the expected influx of hundreds of thousands of tourists who wish to see the reserve’s captive pandas and mountain landscapes. Upon completion of Wolong’s new highway—which has been severely affected by landslides during and since the earthquake—mass tourism of hundreds of thousands of visitors each year will put a massive pressure on Wolong’s infrastructure—roads, power, water, waste management systems, etc. The next generation of leaders at Wolong and other protected areas will face growing challenges to maintain the integrity of wild lands. And, like other developing nations, China walks a tightrope between economic development and conservation.
There is still reason for optimism, since the Chinese government is taking steps to protect natural areas. In the last 50 years, more than 50 protected areas have been set-aside for giant pandas, largely focused on Sichuan Province.
A promising panda habitat conservation program is unfolding in the Wolong Nature Reserve. Panda Mountain’s main objective is the conservation and restoration of giant panda habitat. This work is achieved through a forest landscape restoration program with training, education, and local eco-economic development activities. Panda Mountain’s three primary objectives are:
- To follow best ecological restoration practices
- To integrate ecological, social, and economic programs (promoting China’s historical focus on “Harmonious Development”)
- To build partnerships with the Chinese Government and international organizations
The following three activities form part of the panda habitat restoration program:
A Training and Learning Center
We are creating and developing a national-level “Training and Learning Center” that will certify restoration practitioners and guide science-based field programs. Government facilities are now secured to establish a national-level base for ecological restoration training within Wolong. This base will be a high-profile platform to engage international expertise on best restoration management practices. Government agencies and academic and research institutions (in China and internationally) will collaborate to coordinate research and demonstration sites. Certified restoration training programs for a diverse groups of stakeholders (government resource managers, ecologists/scientists, advanced students, indigenous villagers, area protected personnel, and trained eco-volunteers) will form collaborative teams at restoration sites in Wolong and the region surrounding the Sanctuaries World Heritage Site. The activity at the Training and Learning Center requires funding, which Panda Mountain is working to secure. Already, Panda Mountain has developed successful student and fellowship programmes, attracting experts and enthusiastic volunteers to work in Wolong. The organization will establish a restoration demonstration at Wolong to show the potential for improving the effectiveness of practitioners working in habitat restoration efforts.
A vital activity is to engage public participation, including indigenous communities and protected area visitors through activities including geotourism, mountain camps, and sustainable product production (e.g., making honey and growing medicinal plants to bring to market). At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju in 2012, the declaration by the IUCN President emphasized the vital importance of scaling-up conservation. “All parts of society must take determined measures to scale up the conservation of biological diversity to halt its continued and rapid decline.” The loss of biodiversity (species, ecosystems, and genes) has grim consequences for humanity. In particular, we must ensure that protected areas are well managed; establish species recovery programmes; adopt measures to restore and rehabilitate habitat; and provide decision makers with the tools for effective landscape and seascape management, which conserves nature and sustains people’s livelihoods.
Panda Mountain is planning activities in Wolong that will engage ecologists, villagers, students, and eco-volunteers in hands-on native forest restoration and in native plant nurseries. This restoration initiative will promote “scaling-up conservation” by demonstrating how resource management policy can evolve from restricting human activity to fostering engagement and long-term stewardship. Moving away from restriction and toward promoting restoration can help inspire people to become positive ecological change agents. One example is volunteers coming to Wolong and giving time to support restoration projects. To help indigenous communities, Panda Mountain aims to establish a community cooperative which would be an independently operating entity—run by local people, for local people—managing various ‘green enterprises,’ value-added processing for agricultural products, producing honey, growing medicinal plants, etc.
Panda Mountain believes that geotourism will do two things in Wolong—protect the environment and provide the local community with a sustainable income. Geotourism is defined by National Geographic as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.
Geotourism incorporates the concept of sustainable tourism—that destinations should remain unspoiled for future generations—while allowing for ways to protect a place’s character. Like National Geographic and many other agencies around the world, Panda Mountain believes geotourism is the future of destination travel and the organization is working with partners to promote best geotourism practices in Wolong. Panda Mountain aims to establish restoration-based tourism programs through the construction and promotion of Mountain Restoration Camps—attracting tourists and corporate training groups to come and experience wild and wonderful China. The Camps will provide places for restoration experts to guide the work of local villagers, students, and ecological volunteers to restore native forests and panda habitat. They will also provide opportunities for team building exercises and for students to learn wilderness survival skills.
Once the road to Wolong—damaged by the earthquake— is fully reconstructed, there will be a massive influx of tourists, which can be sustainable and support conservation if well planned and managed. There is a danger the environment will simply be further degraded if the tourism is not managed properly. A sustainable tourism—or geotourism—model that demonstrates how to engage visitors in the restoration of degraded natural areas could provide a business model for use across China.
Manage Introduced, Non-Native Species
Forty years ago, Sichuan foresters planted Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi), a fast growing, exotic, non-native tree to provide forest cover for Wolong lands that had been logged. Decades later, Sichuan scientists realized that these non-native monoculture stands inhibit natural forest regeneration—the extremely dense larch aggressively competes against all other vegetation. Furthermore, these trees dump a thick layer of needles on the forest floor each fall, causing an adverse effect on soil structure and chemistry, preventing the germination of native seeds.
With the support of the Wolong Nature Reserve Administration, Panda Mountain is building a team of Sichuan foresters, ecologists, scientists—and engaging local communities—to enhance and expand giant panda habitat. Beginning with a focus on restoring biodiversity in the mono-culture larch stands, this ecological restoration project will train and contract local farmers to grow native plants, especially trees, while helping support local communities through the optimal use of the larch timber.
According to the Wolong Nature Reserve Administration, there are approximately 90,000 million units (or 6,000 hectares) of the Japanese larch in Wolong. An important case study area is located within and surrounding Zhuan Jin Lou village, which is situated between a historic field research station at Wuyipeng and Wolong’s first captive giant panda center at Hetaoping. Hetaoping is also the site where Panda Mountain will establish a restoration training center. Around the Zhuan Jin Lou area, the negative affect of the Japanese larch is very clear — these monoculture stands have no value or benefit for the nature reserve’s biodiversity, nor the villager’s economic development.
The solution to managing the Japanese larch plantations is to successfully integrate forest restoration for giant pandas and economic development for local farmers. The forest restoration process includes work that will:
- Restore degraded Japanese larch forests with native vegetation, thereby increasing the local biodiversity of the mountain ecosystems that support giant pandas in Wolong Nature Reserve;
- Increase Sichuan’s implementation capacity to conserve biodiversity through the demonstration of ecological restoration of degraded habitats in Wolong;
- Improve economic conditions of local villagers by provide training and employment for “green” livelihoods such as growing native plants/trees and harvesting and using the larch;
- Develop training and educational materials on the project’s objectives, methods, and outcomes for protected area resource managers, conservation researchers, students, and tourists. The project’s reference models, restoration sites, and native plant nurseries are to serve as outdoor classrooms to promote training and learning on ecological restoration principles and practices;
- Help Wolong establish a community cooperative to train and employ indigenous villagers, enabling them to become stewards of the protected area in which they live.
The project will actively engage and inform local stakeholders (villagers and others) who can benefit from project results. We will consult local villagers regarding project activities, and local input will be considered to give stakeholders a sense of “ownership” in the program, so that they support successful outcomes and so that the project avoids potential conflicts on land use changes. Additionally, the project should employ local villagers as much as possible once the villagers have sufficient training and management from the project manager or team. If needed, forms of compensation will be part of the project, to ensure local stakeholders are not negatively impacted by project activities if they are no longer able to utilize resources upon which they depend (for example, restrictions on livestock grazing).
The scheduling of various project activities at numerous project plots (such as production and procurement of planting materials, monitoring of treatments and vegetation) is complex and requires the services of restoration practitioners. Panda Mountain welcomes volunteers (experienced “fellows”) to come to the Reserve and help continue and guide our work on the ground.
The best way to save the giant panda from extinction is the road less traveled: habitat restoration on a landscape scale. This is no easy task, especially in the upper Yangtze watershed where logging is forbidden. Panda Mountain has started a long-term forest landscape restoration in Wolong with demonstration projects, hoping to expand to larger scale areas. While the program needs additional support, the organization is committed to working in Wolong on a long-term basis to ensure successful outcomes. The groundwork is done, the needs of nature and local people are identified, and the solutions are clear. Panda Mountain welcomes more partners in its effort to restore to restore the giant panda’s home. Success is sure and requires working together, across cultures and disciplines.
Perhaps the desperate plight of China’s black and white bear will provide the impetus which is seemingly required in order to take the necessary steps to heal our relationship with the world around us. If we act now, maybe we can save giant pandas and their high-altitude ecosystems. Not only China is affected: environmental degradation is a global problem—as seen in recent news articles about how China’s air pollution is affecting weather patterns in other parts of the world, including the United States. We all have the ability to become global change agents. Scaling-Up Conservation, including all parts of society, is needed. The plight of the giant panda, one species of many currently endangered all across the globe, is our call to action to restore degraded lands.