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.

Dispatch from China: Tracking and playing with pandas (part 1 of 2)

On a single-lane dirt road wending between misty crags deep in Sichuan Province, traffic has slowed to a crawl. Hundreds of dump trucks and steamrollers are expanding the only road to Wolong Nature Reserve into a modern freeway. Conservation biologist George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City was the first Westerner to study giant pandas in China when he came to Wolong, about 500 kilometers southwest of Wanglang, in 1980.

Now, more than 100,000 tourists every year flock to Wolong, the country’s most famous panda reserve, to see its 120 captive-bred pandas, the largest such population in the world.

On a March afternoon, there are so many pandas in the “kindergarten pen” here that it’s hard to keep track of their antics. One is attempting a handstand while three others are playing king of the hill. These carefree cubs, a record 19 from Wolong’s breeding season, are part of the dramatic comeback for a symbol of conservation: the giant panda.
The toddlers may one day follow Xiangxiang, the first captive panda released into the wild in April 2006, as part of the campaign to prop up the wild population, estimated at 1,600 in 2001. China’s central government has increased the number of reserves from 13 a decade ago to 59 this year, with two to three coming online every year. The reserves cover 50% of the panda’s habitat and 75% of the population. The government has also banned logging of natural forests and started a “Grain for Green” campaign to encourage farmers to restore the native habitat.

Wolong will soon build a new captive breeding facility that can house 300 pandas, a goal that would ensure the survival of the captive population for 100 years and maintain 95% of its genetic diversity.

Almost two-thirds of captive panda births each year happen at Wolong, thanks to the reserve’s obsession with perfecting artificial insemination over the last 15 years and discovering in 2000 how to keep twins alive by removing one of them from the mother.

A decade ago, the captive birth of a single cub would cause a huge media sensation. Back then, if a mother bore twins, she would invariably abandon one and raise the other. In 2000, breeders figured out how to raise twins by allowing one cub at a time to stay with the mother and raising the other by hand. They frequently swap cubs so both learn survival lessons from mom. Now Wolong is trying to outdo last year’s record number of births by artificial insemination.

The reintroduction campaign took a serious hit recently when a rival male badly injured Xiangxiang. Because of his mild manners from a captive upbringing, he has been having a difficult time fitting in with the wild crowd. And earlier, rangers lost track of him when his GPS battery died.

The size of that population, it turns out, is a bit controversial. One Chinese research team recently published a study claiming the population might be double the estimate of 1998’s Third National Survey. Using DNA fingerprints collected from fresh feces, they were able to identify 66 individuals in a key reserve. The Third National Survey found just 27 in 1998.

If this controversial study turns out to be accurate, pandas would be off the international list of endangered species. But perhaps they’re not out of the woods–or shall we say bamboo forest–yet. Read part 2 tomorrow to find out why, as I go panda tracking with a Chinese guy named Chuckie.


Dispatch from China: The time I got drunk off tiger wine (part 1 of 2)

On a nondescript street near downtown Harbin, the Double Mountain Local Products Wholesale Center offers the usual array of kitsch items stripped from the wilderness: deer antlers, pelts and dried starfish. A request for tiger wine, a traditional brew of corpse-steeped cheap liquor with dozens of reputed medical benefits, raises a stern eyebrow from an employee who informs me that as such concoctions are illegal, they are not available at the store.

But at the mention of American money, a store manager intervenes – $100 would buy two bottles, and true to the employee’s words they are not at the store; they will be delivered via courier. Doubts about the brew’s authenticity are shooed away.

The manager is certain the bottles are the genuine article because, she says, “they came from over at that tiger park”. She is referring to the Hengdaohezi Feline Breeding Center on the outskirts of the city. By most accounts, that tiger farm is an enviable success. Started in 1986 with 8 Siberian tigers, it is now home to 800 of the big cats. Compare that with the estimated 150 Siberian tigers in US zoos. The largest tiger-breeding facility in the world, Hengdaohezi – like its cousin down south at the Wolong Panda Reserve – has learned the art of churning out cubs, 100 this year alone.
And whether or not she is speaking the truth, the manager is highlighting a looming international stand-off between conservationists and the Chinese government.

China banned domestic trade of tiger parts in 1993, but that did not arrest the desire for their use in wine or traditional Chinese medicine. A black market fills the demand and goods can often be traced back to breeding centres. In August 2006, a tiger farm in Guangxi province was caught with 400 vats of wine, each stewing a whole tiger carcass. This past June at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference in The Hague, the Netherlands, wildlife officials used DNA evidence to accuse the same farm of serving tiger meat.

In a walk-in fridge at Hengdaohezi – off-limits to tourists and journalists – 200 frozen tiger carcasses lie scattered, waiting to be turned into tiger wine and medicine, according to a breeding consultant for the park at neighbouring Northeast Forestry University. Whether Hengdaohezi benefits tiger conservation is questionable, but one thing is certain – if the government lifts the ban on the tiger trade, places such as Hengdaohezi will profit.

Liu Dan, the park’s chief scientist, didn’t see a problem when I paid him a visit. “We can use dead tigers to save live tigers,” he explains, promising to use profits for the centre’s genetic and reintroduction projects.

With its baffling breeding techniques and plans to open a market in tiger parts, Hengdaohezi hardly seems the safest place for Siberian tigers, but how they would fare in the wild is even more uncertain. So perhaps it is fortunate that the reintroduction campaign is mainly hype for now. Although media reports mention plans to release 600 of the captive tigers (apparently hoping to coincide it with the Beijing Olympics), the center has not yet separated any group for eventual reintroduction, selected any potential release sites, or built specialist training enclosures.

As Liu Dan broods over his nursing mothers, he defends the conservation work of the center, posing the rhetorical question that if they weren’t keeping the tigers around for a greater purpose, wouldn’t they be just another tiger farm? “From breeding to reintroduction is a long process,” Liu Dan says. “The program isn’t mature yet.”

A decision on the tiger trade ban can come at any time, according to Chinese government officials. As of 2006, all tigers have been required to wear a microchip, and some authorities say such tracking abilities combined with a certification process – a system that met with success with China’s ivory, crocodile and ginseng trade – could lead to a win–win situation for everybody. But lifting the ban may be illegal. US wildlife enforcement officers say China would be flaunting an existing international ban on tiger parts – and noncompliance could lead to sanctions.

For now though, the world waits for China’s next move.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment, in which I visit the evil breeding facility and play Dance Dance Revolution with a Siberian tiger.


Tigers in Africa

A friend of mine, Li Quan, has been raising tigers in Africa. The first thing you should know is that tigers are not found in Africa. The second thing you should know is that she gave up a cushy career in the fashion industry to become a cat conservationist. Both points seem strange. But what’s most bizarre is that her tigers are Chinese. In fact, they’re one of the rarest animals in the world. There’s only 67 South China tigers remaining.

Well, make that 68. Over the weekend, one of her four adult tigers gave birth to a 1.2 kilogram fuzzy ball of a cub. This cub will be sent, along with any others that are born soon, to China, where they will be released into nature reserves. These reserves will be the first of their kind for tiger conservation – and a model of sustainable eco-tourism. You would be able to check out the tigers in their natural habitat.

Of course, you could do that even now. Her tigers are being raised in South Africa’s Free State. They spend their days roaming the safari (kind of, there’s a big fence around them). They hunt antelopes when they’re hungry. And entertain guests who come to check out what is sure the weirdest animal to be found in Africa: a Chinese tiger.

Congrats Li Quan.