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Panda Sanctuary in China Named World Heritage Site

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 18, 2006
 
The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries in southwestern China has been named
a World Heritage site by the United Nations.

The forested region is home to more than 30 percent of the world's pandas.

Only about 1,600 giant pandas are left in the wild.

Conservationists hope the designation will help improve and restore critical panda habitat.

"This designation will be a big help for panda conservation," said Zhang Hemin, director of the Wolong Nature Reserve, China's largest panda reserve and one of seven reserves within the newly designated region.

"It will connect the largest block of [contiguous] panda habitat in the world," Hemin said.

However, conservationists are worried about the impact of increased tourism that the designation will likely bring to the remote and largely undeveloped region.

Two areas of the reserve were excluded from the designation because of developments planned there.

The plans include shopping centers, hotels, restaurants, and an amusement park.

The Wolong Valley could see the number of visitors to the area skyrocket from 200,000 people a year to 1.8 million.

"The pandas' greatest challenge used to be logging, marble mines, and agricultural encroachment," said Marc Brody, a panda conservationist based in Madison, Wisconsin. "Today it is the tourism economy."

Brody, a National Geographic Conservation Trust grantee, is the founder of the nonprofit U.S.-China Environmental Fund (USCEF), which is working with Chinese researchers to conserve wild pandas and their habitat.

(National Geographic News is a division of the National Geographic Society.)

Panda Home

The Sichuan sanctuaries are among 18 new World Heritage sites named last week by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (See photos of some of the newly named World Heritage sites.)

Located in the Qionglai and Jiajin mountains, the sanctuaries cover 3,700 square miles (9,583 square kilometers).

(See China country profile, map, video, music, and more.)

The bamboo forest is the largest remaining contiguous habitat of the giant panda and the most important site for captive breeding of the animal.

The Panda Center in the Wolong Nature Reserve houses 103 giant pandas, more than half the total number of captive pandas worldwide.

Among the world's botanically richest sites, the sanctuaries are also home to other endangered animals such as the red panda and the snow leopard.

(See a red panda photo.)

"The biodiversity of this site is spectacular, and it is an incredibly important site for the giant panda species," said David Sheppard, the head of the protected areas program for the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in Gland, Switzerland.

The IUCN advises UNESCO on its World Heritage site designations.

Environmental Impact

UNESCO had deferred designating the sanctuaries as a World Heritage site twice in the past, in 1986 and 2001, amid concerns about China's lack of conservation planning.

Some conservationists are critical of UNESCO's decision to exclude from the site two areas of the Wolong reserve where development is expected take place.

"It doesn't make sense to punch two holes in the map of the site and say this area is not included," said Brody of USCEF.

Proponents of the development argue that it is only taking place in a small area on the Wolong Valley floor in noncritical panda habitat. The giant pandas live at higher elevations.

But Brody says no proper environmental impact assessment has been done for the development. There's no way of knowing what impact the construction of a new highway and the tenfold increase in visitors might have on the panda habitat, he says.

"The painful irony is that the World Heritage site designation will attract more attention to this area, but policies have not been put in place to protect the same resources [from tourism]," Brody said.

Reintroducing Pandas

But Brody also sees cause for hope and a chance to create a conservation success story in the Sichuan sanctuaries.

"International recognition for the largest contiguous area of panda habitat and Wolong's historic achievements with captive pandas are the foundation for a wonderful conservation success story," he said.

A record 16 pandas were born in captivity in Wolong last year. In late April, conservationists there for the first time reintroduced into the wild a giant panda that had been bred in captivity.

(See "Photo in the News: Captive-Bred Panda Released in China—A First.")

Researchers coordinated by USCEF are currently mapping and monitoring the sanctuaries to identify panda habitat. They can then use captive-bred pandas to increase the numbers where needed.

Brody says such programs provide the newly designated sanctuary with a unique opportunity "to conserve, restore, and expand panda habitat."

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