Endangered Pandas Not Safe in Chinese Nature Reserve

EAST LANSING, Michigan, April 6, 2001 (ENS) - China's Wolong Nature Reserve was established to be a panda heaven where the endangered species of bear could recover. But burgeoning human populations near the reserve and crowds of tourists are squeezing the bears into an increasingly smaller area, a new study of satellite data shows.


The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) first appeared in the evolutionary record some two to three million years ago. (Photos courtesy Giant-Panda.com)
Dr. Jianguo Liu, an associate professor of fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University has conducted a 32 year analysis of satellite images of the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, southwestern China where about 10 percent of the wild pandas live. An estimated 1,000 pandas remain in the wild.

Using both data from a recently declassified spy satellite and NASA's Landsat satellites as well as information about the human settlements in the preserve, the research team found that panda habitat is being destroyed more quickly inside the reserve than in adjacent areas of China that are not protected.

Panda preservation has been a highly popular and publicized effort. The reserve has received considerable financial support from the Chinese government and international organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund.

But the rates of destruction were higher after the reserve was established in 1975 than before the reserve's creation, says Liu. The panda reserve has been a victim of its own existence.

Towns and settlements have thrived in the Wolong Reserve. The local resident population has increased 70 percent since the reserve was established. This is partly because much of the population is ethnic minority and exempt from China's one child per family policy, Liu explains.

Each tourist who comes to see the pandas has caused their habitat to shrink a little more. Tourists stay in hotels, eat local products and buy local souvenirs.


Panda chews on bamboo, its favorite food.
"Tourists don't think they have an impact on panda habitat, but indirectly each visitor has some impact," Liu said. "They come. They take their summer vacations there and stimulate the local economy, which in turn uses more local natural resources. We don't see ourselves as a destructive force, but we are."

The Chinese and American panda research team includes Michigan State University Ph.D. students Marc Linderman and Li An in the United States, and in China, Zhiyun Ouyang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Jian Yang and Hemin Zhang from China's Center for Giant Panda Research and Conservation.

The study, published as "Ecological Degradation in Protected Areas: The Case of Wolong Nature Reserve for Giant Pandas," was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Institutes of Health.

To survive, giant pandas need plenty of forest canopy, elevations that allow for comfortable temperatures, and slopes that are not too steep to be uncomfortable.

Liu's team combined these criteria to define desirable habitat, then mapped it with satellite and remote sensing data. Their maps show prime panda habitat is being encroached upon by human settlements.

They also more closely examined human population dynamics and found that in increased number of young people in the area have affected the pandas.


Panda in the high mountain forest it needs for survival
"One thing ignored in traditional research is the importance in changing population structure would have on biodiversity," Liu said. "Over time, the percentage of young people living in Wolong has increased. That means they have more labor force, more young people to go to the mountains to cut down the trees.

"People perceive protected areas as the last resource for protecting biodiversity. What they don't realize is that even high-profile protected areas like Wolong Nature Reserve may not be really protected," Liu said.

The team points to the need for integrating ecology with human demography and behavior as well as socioeconomics to understand the role of protected areas in fostering biodiversity around the globe.

"Some people may think about human destruction intuitively," Liu said. "Our research integrates humans into the equation because human destruction is the most critical factor in the fate of the pandas. If biodiversity cannot be protected in protected areas, where can we protect biodiversity?"