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Homeless pandas

2015-03-16 10:11 Global Times Web Editor: Li Yan

Numbers of the iconic animal grow but habitats are still threatened

About 60 research fellows were examining the excrement of pandas inch by inch deep in the mountains, collaborating with some 40 fellows back in the Sichuan-based China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP), a research fellow who participated in the latest national giant panda survey told the Global Times.

They spent two years hunting for panda droppings in 49 counties of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces - home to China's wild pandas.

Calling themselves a "dung-seeking team," the research fellows took DNA from fecal samples to identify the gender of pandas, coupled with a more traditional method: analyzing the length of intact bamboo fragments left in feces and their unique bite size.

The researchers discovered that by the end of 2013, the population of giant pandas in the wild had increased by 16.8 percent to 1,864, compared to previous survey conducted in 2003, the State Forestry Administration (SFA) announced on February 28.

Meanwhile, environments suitable to act as giant panda habitats expanded by 11.8 percent to 2.58 million hectares from 2003.

The rise in panda numbers is "a testament to the commitment made by the Chinese government for the last 30-plus years" to help this iconic species, Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which supported the survey, was quoted by National Geographic as saying.

But experts have warned that human activities still pose high risks for the survival of pandas, while governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are trying to strike a balance between humans and pandas.

Groups at risks

Experts reached by the Global Times agreed that the activities of locals living in or around panda habitats, such as herding, mining and infrastructure construction, put significant pressure on pandas' homes.

Humans living near pandas may encroach on their natural habitats and deprive them of food while new dams and roads may prevent different groups of pandas from coming into contact with each other, resulting in harmful inbreeding, the research fellow told the Global Times.

As a result of geographic condition and human intervention, there are 33 isolated groups of giant pandas in China today. Those deemed at risk live in 24 isolated groups and account for 12 percent of the wild population, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

A total of 22 groups with less than 30 individuals were found to be "on the brink of extinction." Among them, 18 groups with less than 10 individuals were "at extremely high risk of extinction."

Although there are 67 nature reserves, covering 3.36 million hectares, 42 percent of the natural habitats of pandas have not been incorporated into nature reserves, thepaper.cn reported.

"There are outstanding conflicts between the protection of the giant pandas and their habitats, and local socioeconomic development," said Chen Fengxue, deputy head of the SFA.

Bad neighbors

"Herding is one of the major activities done by nearby residents," said Huang Yan, deputy chief engineer with CCRCGP.

People herd horses, cows and goats which compete for bamboo leaves with pandas and take up the living space of the timid animal, Huang said.

Communities that live close to pandas, many of whom are ethnic minorities such as Tibetan and Qiang people, depends mainly on grazing for their livelihoods, said Diao Kunpeng, a research fellow with the NGO Shan Shui Conservation Center (SSCC) that is devoted to promoting biodiversity in Southeast China.

Diao added that locals often cut down bamboo shoots and collect herbs in nature reserves for sale or their own use, which forces pandas to move to other areas to hunt for food.

In the face of conflicts between humans and pandas, both local governments and NGOs are seeking ways to protect pandas and locals' interests.

Yang Xiaojun, head of the resource bureau in Wolong in Sichuan, said that they have encouraged nearby residents to run restaurants and hotels around the nature reserve and have taught them to raise domestic animals in designated areas.

People living in Baishuijiang Nature Reserve in Gansu plant edible mushrooms and keep bees to reduce their reliance on natural resources also needed by protected wildlife, Xinhua reported.

"About 100 residents of the Wanglang Nature Reserve who took part in our bee-keeping program earned about 10,000 yuan ($1,599) a year more than before, and have exerted less pressure on the panda's habitat," Feng Jie, director of SSCC's projects in Sichuan, said.

However, he admitted that the mushrooms and bee-related products - despite their high quality - are difficult to market due to their high prices.

Zhao Huawen, founder of the Eudemonia Bank, an organization based in Chengdu dedicated to protecting the habitats of pandas, pointed out that "poverty alleviation requires systematic programs, attracting the joint efforts of businesses, NGOs and local governments."

Economy vs ecology

The SFA has blamed the fragmentation of habitats on roads and high-voltage transmission towers. The survey identified the construction of 319 hydropower plants, 1,339 kilometers of roads, 268.7 kilometers of high-voltage transmission lines, 984 residential areas, 479 mines and 25 tourist attractions as major disturbances to the animal's habitats.

Yang said many pandas live in remote regions where the economy lags far behind the rest of the nation, citing the barren mountainous Liangshan area in Sichuan as an example. "Local people have no natural resources but ores like agate. Although no mines have been approved officially recently, families dig for ore by themselves without machines," Yang said.

As roads and railways are seen as the foundation of economic development, some local governments believe those projects are more important than pandas, said Fan Zhiyong, director of the species program of the WWF China conservation group.

As for dams and mines, which are run by State-owned enterprises, local governments have little say in the approval process. Besides, they also applaud those projects that bring in taxes and energy, Fan said.

"The balance between socioeconomic development and the protection of pandas can hardly be achieved," Fan said, "but we can still try our best to provide some living space to pandas."

The government can build viaducts and tunnels instead of roads and railways, which prevent the fragmentation of habitats, he said.

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