Earlier this week I posted a photo blog that showed some of the incredible panda conservation projects I visited in Sichuan province. Now, I want to share with you the second part of my journey, as I travel to the Qinling Mountains.
Day 6 – Corridors and calligraphy
As I head for Shaanxi province, famous for its beautiful mountains, rivers and historical relics, there’s a noticeable difference in cuisine. Less hotpots, more noodles.
I pass Qingmuchuan Nature Reserve, which lies at the junction of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. The giant panda population is relatively small in this area, but it’s the main corridor between the Qinling and Minshan mountain ranges.
I have a quick break to learn about Chinese calligraphy from Duanxuechao, a well-known calligrapher in Qingchuan. Can you guess what I’m learning to write?
Day 7 – Ibis flying high
I visit Yangxian – vital habitat of the endangered crested ibis. These magnificent birds used to thrive throughout Japan, China, Russia and the Korean peninsula but their numbers were reduced sharply by wars, natural disasters, hunting and other human activities. During the 1960s and 1970s it was believed that they were extinct, until seven individuals were found in Yangxian.
Immediately after the discovery, China launched a project that’s bred several generations – there are now estimated to be more than 700 crested ibis in the wild. We also spotted this fantastic Asian flycatcher nesting in the trees.
Lingshan prefecture is one of the places we’ve been promoting efficient cooking stoves. Since 2011, we’ve been working with local communities to improve living conditions and reduce the amount of firewood people need to collect from the forests.
Day 8 – Panda road safety
My next stop is Guanyinshan Nature Reserve – a former forest farm on the southern slopes of the Qinling mountains. These mountains contain the watershed of China’s two main rivers, the Yangtze and the Yellow. Forests and wetlands here are home to red pandas, Asiatic black bears, yellow-throated martens, takin, blue-eared pheasants and my personal favourite – the golden monkey.
The reserve was intensively logged until 1998. But thanks to WWF, Shaanxi Forestry Department and Guanyinshan Nature Reserve it’s now being restored, and bamboo has been planted. With our support, the nature reserve was recently awarded ‘national nature reserve’ status, which means it’ll be given more resources to support conservation activities.
Near a road that runs through the Qinling mountains, I visit a restoration site that connects one nature reserve to another. Chenghongfei, the vice-director of Guanyinshan Nature Reserve, explains that in 1999, sections of this road were upgraded and a tunnel was built that left 13km of mountain road abandoned. With support from us and more than 40 local people, they’ve started to restore the habitat by planting 1 sq km of arrow bamboo (Fargesia qinlingensis) which is the pandas’ main and most nutritious food source.
I’m also shown an ecoduct demonstration site, where 10 passages have been constructed to allow wildlife to cross safely. Camera traps have been set up beside the ecoducts so we can monitor their effectiveness. The team checked the cameras and showed me evidence of takin and leopard cats.
With the Shaanxi Institute of Zoology, we’ve produced an ecoduct handbook. It explains how to design ecoducts, and outlines measures that minimise the impacts of road construction on wildlife. Ironically, as we’re discussing this, we spy panda droppings beside our vehicle. A panda had traveled across the road rather than using the new ecoduct. Typical!
Day 9 – Latest national panda survey
My next stop is Laoxiancheng Nature Reserve. Laoxiancheng used to be the county town with a population of over 30,000, but it was abandoned over 100 years ago when bandits rampaged the town and two county governors were killed. Now it’s a village with fewer than 130 people. The only traces of its legendary history are its city wall and beautiful ‘west gate’.
In ancient times the forest around this area was heavily logged, but when the people left, the forests restored themselves. It’s now a haven for wildlife.
As we head deep into the forest I ask Liyuepeng, a ranger at the reserve, about the fourth national panda survey – the first since 2004. The Chinese government announced the results recently but the field work took place here over two years ago. Liyuepeng remembers that conducting the survey was difficult because the snow was so deep – but they found panda droppings almost every day, so they were optimistic about the results.
Day 10 – Contemplating conservation challenges
My 10 amazing days here have allowed me to challenge the field team on their strategies, quiz the nature reserve staff about patrolling and monitoring – and sample some pretty strange cuisine. I’ve also made some fabulous new Chinese friends. And of course I’ll treasure my close encounters with offerings left by those elusive giant pandas.
But as I prepare to head back home, I find myself musing on how all the progress I’ve witnessed relies on the generosity of our supporters far from China’s mysterious mountain forests – particularly supporters in the UK. It’s thanks to them that we’re able to support nature reserves, state-owned forest farms and local communities to develop long-term solutions to protect pandas in the wild. Very real threats still remain, but we’ve achieved a lot in our quest to ensure that a global conservation icon is protected for future generations.
If you’d like to help us continue our work to protect giant pandas, please consider adopting a giant panda.