Dispatch from China: Tracking and playing with pandas (part 2 of 2)

Read part 1 of this story here.

The excited cry of a park ranger pierces the stillness of a bamboo forest high in the Min Mountains. Zhan Xiangjiang, an ecologist who I’m hanging out with for the day, bounds through waist-deep snowdrifts to investigate. Catching up with the ranger, he kneels down and points at a small, round object that, at first glance, looks like a greenish yam. “Smell this!” he says to me.

The not-unpleasant odor of fresh bamboo wafts up. Along with other clues–chewed bamboo stalks, paw prints, and urine-marked trees–the fresh scat is the latest evidence that Zhan’s monitoring team is hot on the heels of a giant panda.
Their quarry may be elusive, but Zhan is upbeat. “Pandas are making a comeback here,” he declares. In the mid-1980s, poaching and a mass bamboo die-off sent China’s flagship animal into a tailspin: The country’s wild panda population plummeted to about 1200, landing the species on the endangered list. Experts decried its imminent extinction. But with a logging ban in all panda habitats since 1999, the species appears to be on the rebound.

It is a hotly debated question, however, whether panda populations are just beginning to regain lost ground or are already healthier than they have been for many years. Virtually nothing about the iconic mammal is without rancor. Another controversy swirls around China’s program to breed giant pandas in captivity. Last year, the effort produced more than 30 cubs–a record–as well as the first captive released into the wild. Some conservationists say the breeding program can bolster wild populations. Others are skeptical.

Zhan, or as I like to call him, Chuckie (asI kept forgetting his Chinese name), cups some scat in his bare hand and grins as it shimmers in the sunlight. “The shiny layer is mucus,” he says–and it’s full of DNA. To gauge how many pandas are prowling Wanglang, he spent much of 2003 and 2004 combing the area for precious panda droppings. His zeal almost got him killed–in 2004, he slipped and broke his spine and had to endure a bumpy 400-kilometer ride to a hospital in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. He was not paralyzed, however, and returned to work after a 3-month-long convalescence.

Panda experts agree that the species needs all the help it can get. Tourism and development are nipping at the reserves. Tourists leave garbage, and villagers lay traps for game animals that inadvertently snare pandas. One wildlife NGO, Conservation International, is testing a new community-based conservation model that will give villagers financial incentives to protect panda habitat outside the reserves. Three villages abutting Wanglang have signed on, and negotiations are under way to add 100 more sites in the next 3 years.

The central government, too, is taking action. Its Wildlife Conservation Protection Program seeks to bring 90% of wild pandas under the reserve system, from 75% today. In the 1980s, there were fewer than 20 reserves for pandas. Now there are 60.

Down from the mountain, Chuckie’s monitoring team encounters a pair of blue-eared pheasants, their most dramatic wildlife sighting all day. No black-and-white bamboo eaters–but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he says. It means the pandas are somewhere in the highlands, deep in the bamboo forest, and safe from humans for another day.