National Geographic : 2016 Aug
Pandas Gone Wild 79 Jindong, who does research in Wolong. In 2012 the local government ordered horses removed from the forests and urged people “to raise yaks and other animals instead,” he says. But those animals’ presence also spurs pandas to move, he says—“and where can they go?” A massive earthquake in 2008 killed tens of thousands of people and turned mountain homes to waste. The disaster, which destroyed part of Hetaoping, gave the government fodder to persuade villagers living in bear habitat to move. Officials built a series of lowland villages to house many of the displaced and declared a victory for panda conservation. Some villagers have found work building a new highway that tunnels through mountains between Chengdu and Wolong. Others who gave up their fields and livestock remain jobless. Some refuse to let go of their old life. Li Shufang, a 75-year-old woman I visited in the simple home she shares with relatives, walks several hours a day, up and down the mountain, to tend to pigs and a garden where the family lived before the quake. When I asked how she felt about making way for pandas, she spat back in a local dialect, “ Why didn’t they move the pandas instead?” Others I met seemed more content with the “easier” life in the village, though few are cur- rently benefiting directly from pandamania. With a new panda breeding and education cen- ter called Gengda in Wolong, “perhaps when the road is complete and tourists start coming, we will make money and feel better about pandas being so important to the government,” said a local man. “Right now, to me, a panda is just a bear, nothing special.” To turn the reclaimed land into bear habitat, locals are hired to plant seedlings where forests were diminished by logging or quake damage. The Chinese have focused on quick-growing tree species, whose roots inhibit erosion. But those species don’t make good panda habi- tat: The most nutritious bamboos grow in the understory of old-growth forests, which take decades to mature. The mountainous terrain makes it hard to plant on a large scale—so the landscape remains fragmented, which means the panda populations do too. Barney Long, director of species conserva- tion at Global Wildlife Conservation, says that only nine of some 33 panda subpopulations “are really viable,” with enough animals to persist long term. Climate change is bound to make this worse: Scientific models warn that in the next Since 2006 Chinese scientists have released five pandas, all wearing tracking collars, into the wild. Two have been found dead. The other three are still out there.