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China's Pandas Face an Uncertain Future After Quake

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing
for National Geographic News
January 29, 2009
 
China has started mapping out a reconstruction plan for parts of Sichuan Province that were devastated by a major earthquake in May 2008.

And while the immediate plans—signed-off on late last year—aim to rebuild communities and captive panda facilities, they do not, to the chagrin of some conservationists, include sufficient measures to restore or protect the surrounding bamboo forests that provide refuge for endangered wild pandas.

According to some experts, hasty post-quake rebuilding in southwestern China could ultimately accelerate the fragmentation of the fragile panda's largest remaining natural habitat.

"The earthquake and the human response to the earthquake are actually posing new threats to the long-term viability of the wild pandas," said Marc Brody, founder of the conservation group Panda Mountain—U.S.-China Environmental Fund. Brody has been working in the region for nearly a decade and is helping the Chinese government with blueprints for reconstruction.

Quakes

Hit in succession by seismic shocks and rock slides, China's largest swath of protected wild panda habitat—the 2.3 million-acre (924,500-hectare) Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries—incurred significant damage, according to Giovanni Boccardi, who heads the Asia-Pacific section of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre in Paris. (The sanctuaries are a World Heritage site.)

The Sanctuaries, a collection of seven reserves and nine parks, host at least 25 percent of the Earth's remaining 2,000 captive and wild pandas.

The earthquake, Boccardi explained, set off avalanches that buried some of the bamboo forests that sheltered the wild pandas of Sichuan.

The other 75 percent of the Earth's pandas populate areas of Sichuan outside the Sanctuaries, as well as parts of Shanxi and Gansu provinces, which also suffered during the massive quake.

Pandas and People

China's pandas and its people are inextricably linked.

An influx of up to five million quake refugees searching for new homes will also impact the pandas.

The Chinese government's master plan for reconstruction will attempt to relocate the homeless, but some scientists say that hasty resettlement could be disruptive to the pandas.

As China's population grows and people relocate, pandas face a multitude of challenges, including habitat loss and fragmentation.

According to Brody and other experts, the habitat in Sichuan was already carved up before the quake hit.

Panda-friendly bamboo forests in the province are spread over 159 townships in 33 counties, all with separate government administrators who often have competing interests.

Much to its detriment, the giant panda has an insatiable appetite for bamboo. A panda, on average, consumes about 28 pounds (12.5 kilograms) of bamboo a day.

Now new construction could intensify the fragmentation threatening the forests

"There is a new post-quake highway that for the first time is bisecting the center of the Giant Panda Sanctuar[ies]," said Brody, describing the influx of post-quake traffic funneled through the protected area now that roads outside the sanctuaries have been buried in mud or otherwise damaged.

Because the pandas' gene pool is already so limited, splitting up the remaining groups into more fragmented habitats could endanger their collective survival, explained Brody. He has received funding for his panda conservation work from the National Geographic Society. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Pandas that live scattered along mountain ranges edging the Tibetan Plateau in Shanxi and Gansu also face shrinking habitats and encroaching humans, Brody said.

Lynn Clark, an expert on bamboo habitats at Iowa State University, underscored the importance of keeping the landscape as intact as possible.

"The biggest threat facing the pandas now is from the human population and resulting framentation of the panda habitats, not from the earthquake or landslide in the region," she said.

(See related: "Panda, Inc.," National Geographic magazine, July 2006.)

Wolong as Noah's Ark of Panda Recovery?

Tucked away in the remote Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries is the Wolong Nature Reserve, where the earthquake killed six staff members and two pandas.

Wolong, with 60 captive pandas and the world's largest panda breeding program and research facility, could hold the keys to the threatened species' future, according to experts.

Wolong's facilities were damaged and reserve land was lost during the quake.

Portions of Wolong's reconstruction plan—to be implemented over the next three years—have been published by the Hong Kong government. Hong Kong is pledging approximately $1.6 billion dollars (US $226 million) for the center's reconstruction.

Wolong director Zhang Hemin and other reserve leaders envision creating an economy that will revolve around panda sightseeing and a wider ecotourism industry.

Yet "Wolong's current reconstruction plan does not [consider] the larger Giant Panda Sanctuary," said Panda Mountain's Brody. Nor does the initial plan include indigenous people in panda and habitat management, he added.

Brody and bamboo expert Clark say that, in order for habitat to sustain pandas into the long term, inside and outside of protected reserves, local communities have to be integral to the proposed panda-centric economy.

"Regional plans for economic development could be improved through adherence to 'geotourism' principles," Brody said.

"Wolong's communities could benefit from well planned destinations that preserve culture and provide economic self-sufficiency, rather than relying on low paying jobs in a [typical] mass tourism based development."

If local villagers could benefit from an ecotourism scheme, said Clark, who has received funding from National Geographic's Committee for Research and Exploration, "they will do more to protect the pandas and the surrounding bamboo habitat."

Beijing University professor Li Dihua, who is helping work out a blueprint for Wolong's restoration, agreed that the final plan should include "training courses for the local inhabitants to prepare them to join Wolong's new focus on ecotourism."

"The local people can find jobs in panda protection and in enviromental protection," he added.

Sichuan Still Seismically Active

Meanwhile, the deep seismic faults that cut through the region—where the flatlands of the Sichuan Basin meet the mountainous eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau—remain active, according to Mike Ellis, a geoscientist who co-authored a mid-2007 study that warned this part of China was ripe for a major quake.

"Wolong is in the middle of very high-relief mountains that are susceptible to landslides during earthquakes," said Ellis, who also heads the British Geological Survey's climate change program.

Any reconstruction plan, he explained, should involve an extraordinary level of care in designing quake-resistant buildings and in avoiding areas vulnerable to quake-triggered landslides.
 

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