Giant pandas are rarely seen in the wild so when I travelled to Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces in south-west China, I knew my chances of spotting this incredible animal were extremely slim. In 10 days I travelled 1,200km, visited seven nature reserves, 10 project sites, experienced my first earthquake tremor, and ate a 100-year-old egg. I didn’t see a wild panda but I got to meet some amazing people and see first-hand the fantastic work that WWF has been doing to protect this iconic Panda species.
My journey begins in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province – a city famous for its tea houses, its spicy, tongue-numbing hotpots, and of course giant pandas!
Day 1 – Infrared cameras and sustainable tourism
Having spent my first night in a hotel called Wong Impression, I headed to the beautiful Qionglai mountains, to Anzihe Nature Reserve. It’s important because it connects four nature reserves – Wolong, Heishuihe, Fengtongzhai and Labahe. Together these reserves protect 877,980 hectares of panda habitat.
I meet Wang Lei, the head of the reserve, who explains how our support has made a real difference. We first supported Anzihe in 1998, with technical support on forestry monitoring. Since then we’ve helped rebuild the ranger station after it was damaged by the 2008 earthquake and built this eco-friendly education centre which is visited by hundreds of schoolchildren each year.
I also saw the mini-hydropower generator which we supported and the new artificial wetland that treats waste water from the patrol stations and the education centre. Practical solutions such as these, which are being constructed in nearby communities as well as nature reserves, help to reduce human impacts on the panda habitats.
With our support, infrared cameras were introduced in the reserve in 2012. Wang Lei explains how the camera traps have been used to monitor wildlife and improve their knowledge of pandas in the reserve. This recent footage of a male panda marking his territory by doing a handstand is a wonderful example.
Tourism is on the increase throughout south-west China – nearly 1,000 visitors came to Anzihe last year. The vast majority are domestic travelers escaping the heat of the cities. But unregulated tourism is threatening panda habitats, so we’re working with the provincial authorities to develop a sustainable tourism industry that protects biodiversity and the environment.
Day 2 – Community protection
Communities play an important role in managing panda habitats. I visited Lianhe village where, with our support, the community collectively manages 300 hectares of panda habitat that connects two panda nature reserves – Longxi-Honkou and Baishuihe.
Zhou Huagang, the village leader, explains that after the protection zone was founded, local people organised their own community patrolling teams and put signs on the boundary of the community forest to stop illegal logging, poaching and bamboo shoot collection.
Day 3 – A flash mob dance
I spent a long day on a bus to Pingwu. So when I encountered a large group of women dancing there, I decided to join in. This dance craze, known as Gang Chang Wu, is sweeping China: groups of women, usually over the age of 45, gather in public squares and parks, in what feels like a Chinese flash mob!
Day 4 – Earthquake and forest development
An earthquake measuring 4.8 on Richter scale wakes me. It’s a stark reminder of the volatility of the area. On 12 May 2008, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake had a profound effect on local communities, killing over 70,000 people. It also badly affected the natural environment – an estimated 1,220 sq km of forest, grassland and wetlands were destroyed by the earthquake and subsequent landslides.
We’re here to celebrate the official opening of a new wildlife protection division in one of the largest forest development corporations in Sichuan province. It’s the first time a former logging company has established its own protection unit, with responsibility for implementing biodiversity conservation in 70,000 hectares of panda habitat.
Historically, Pingwu Forestry Development Corporation’s main source of revenue was timber. But when the Chinese government banned logging in panda habitats, in 1998, the corporation had to shift its focus. We’ve been helping the corporation’s staff by sharing our technical expertise on conservation management, corridor restoration and anti-poaching activities.
As we head towards Wanglang Nature Reserve, we pass several dams and hydropower stations. Large areas of panda habitat have been flooded – something that’s further isolating panda populations.
Day 5 – Panda poo
Wanglang is one of China’s oldest panda reserves. Established in 1965, it covers 320 sq km and is home to about 32 pandas, as well as other endangered species such as black bear, red panda, musk deer and golden monkey – and many species of trees, shrubs, grasses, ferns and other plants.
As we climb to 3,000 metres above sea level, in less than an hour we identify more than 10 different species of orchid!
And there’s plenty of bamboo. It’s not the best time of year to look for pandas but I’m still optimistic. Finally, when it’s almost time to head back, our guide spots this panda dropping.
Survey teams rely heavily on panda droppings to count the number of individuals in an area. Chinese researchers have found that pandas have varying average bite sizes. So by measuring the average bite size of the bamboo fragments in droppings, they can determine the minimum number of pandas in a given area.
To be continued…
In part 2 Nicola leaves Sichuan and heads to the Qinling Mountains. Don’t forget to come back tomorrow to read part 2.
Want to help pandas? Why not make a donation. £25 could pay a protection unit ranger’s salary for 10 days.
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