Giant Panda Habitat Four Years After the Earthquake

On May 12, 2008, the Wenchuan earthquake devastated an area of 470km long and 100km wide. Death was everywhere. Wolong in Wenchuan County, Longxi Hongkou in Dujiangyan City, Baishui River in Pengzhou City, and Anzi River in Chongzhou City are located in the southern section of the seismic zone. Beichuan and Xiaozhaizi Valley are located in the middle of the seismic zone, and Qingchuan and Tangjia River are in the northern part of the zone. Some of the most important habitat for giant pandas lies within the hardest hit areas. According to records, 49 out of 63 nature reserves for giant pandas were effected by the earthquake, while a further 22 reserves were seriously impacted by the earthquake. That means that 53% of giant panda habitats and 67% of wild giant pandas were impacted by the earthquake.

Four years have passed since the earthquake, and many people still ask how the disaster area is recovering. But what about the giant pandas? They and their habitat are not only a concern for China, but for the world.

In 2009, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and the Key Laboratory for Reproduction and Conservation Genetics of Endangered Wildlife of Sichuan Province teamed up to discover how the giant pandas fared after the earthquake. They launched a study called “The study of the influence of the Wenchuan earthquake on giant panda habitat”. The study took three years, and nine experts including Hou Rong, Director of Research Center of the Panda Base, Ran Jianghong, Shen Fujun, and Yang Guangyou.

For this article I interviewed staff from several nature reserves. Li Desheng, Zhao Yan, Wang Lei, Chen Limin, Zhao Zhilong and Zhu Dahai were some of the staff who provided key information for this article. This article presents the results of the study and synthesizes information from Wolong and Anzi River, among others.

Natural Recovery

Going into the disaster area, the most noticeable changes are to the vegetation. In our assessment of the vegetation, our team concentrated on the status of the bamboo species that giant pandas eat.

Baishui River Nature Reserve in Pengzhou City lies in the south section of the Min Mountains and was the hardest hit of all the giant panda nature reserves. 54.91% of its area was damaged.

The damage to the vegetation in Beichuan County, which lies in the midsection of the Min Mountains, and the damage to Taingjia River Nature Reserve in the north of the Min Mountains, was not as severe as the damage in Baishui River. The habitat lost here was not as large with just 0.16% in Beichuan and 0.55% in Tangjia River.

In Pengzhou’s Baishui River Nature Reserve there was extensive loss of vegetation due to a landslide. However, the amount of bamboo lost to the landslide was not significant because the damaged area was not a place that was ideal for bamboo growth. The research team concluded that the amount of bamboo lost was not a threat to the survival of the reserve’s giant pandas.

The shearing off of mountainsides, landslides and mudslides caused by the earthquake resulted in a significant loss of vegetation in some areas. But only four years later there is a great deal of secondary growth beginning to cover the land that had lain exposed. In some places, the bushes and other herbaceous plants reach more than two meters in height. This demonstrates that the ability of this land to rejuvenate is still intact.

Longxi Hongkou Nature Reserve staff found that the vegetation on areas where rockslides occurred is recovering more slowly, with just 10% of the average area having recovered. However, steep slopes are not preferred by giant pandas, so it is not critical to restore these areas quickly. In areas not damaged by rock slides, recovery is as high as 80%.

Officials felt that the restoration of vegetation should occur naturally. However, all nature reserves have also begun reforestation measures to recover the vegetation.

In Wolong Nature Reserve, the total area that was in need of recovery was 3,733 hectares. As this is prime giant panda habitat, staff at Wolong Nature Reserve planted trees and grasses in area that were destroyed and deemed easy to restore. The survival rate of the planted vegetation is high. Thus far, 2,656 hectares have been restored. 1,077 hectares still need to be restored.

Anzi River Nature Reserve used reforestation methods to recover 300 hectares of vegetation. The local community was given funds to plant about 47 hectares of bamboo for giant pandas.

1,000 hectares of Tangjia River Nature Reserve were recovered by planting vegetation in the experimental zone and buffer area. Tangjia River also used forest conservation methods to recover an additional 598 hectares of habitat. The reserve has also renewed seven field-patrol paths, 130km of patrol lines, and has built seven monitoring stations.

Longxi Hongkou Nature Reserve completed 183 hectares of reforestation that contains 480,000 arrow bamboo and cane bamboo plants, alpine poplars, and alpine willows. An additional 2,864kg of seeds were planted to assist in the restoration of the forests. The survival rate of these recovery assisted areas is 90%.

Over the past four years, the ecology of each nature reserve has recovered naturally and with the assistance of humans. The conclusion of the research team was that the bamboo that was lost due to the earthquake can be renewed.

The Earthquake: Not a Strong Influence on Giant Panda Survival

The sudden tremors caused landslides across the region, destroying parts of the nature reserves. The giant panda habitat in Sichuan appeared to have suffered a big blow. What would this mean for giant pandas in the years following the earthquake?

In the Longxi Hongkou Nature Reserve, there are 22 trails that staff use to check for signs of giant pandas. 11 are patrolled four times each year. Since the earthquake in 2008, traces of giant pandas have been found on six of those trails. On the trail in San-jiaojie, Yeniuping, and Xiaocaopo, giant panda tracks have been recorded.

There are 61 trails used to monitor the Tangjia River Nature Reserve, 11 of which are used regularly. To enable the collection of giant panda fecal samples for parasite testing after the earthquake, 50 new trails were created.

Results from pre-earthquake monitoring data (2003-2007) from seven trails in Longxi Hongkou Nature Reserve and 5 in Tangjia River show that:
1. From 2003 – 2007, the population of giant pandas has a relatively fixed living area.
2. From 2008 – 2009, the giant pandas did not significantly change the area in which they lived.
3. The lack of significant change between the 2003 -2007 data and the 2008 – 2009 data showing habitat use by the giant pandas demonstrates that the earthquake did not impact their habitat
4. There is no obvious influence on giant panda habitat due to landslides.

The data from the survey clearly shows that there is no significant change to the habitat utilization of the giant pandas in either Longxi Hongkou or Tangjia River.

In Wolong Nature Reserve, the recent survey of giant pandas showed that there were 143 giant pandas living in Wolong. This was the same number that was found by the 3rd National Rare Animal Survey in 2004. Wolong has a high population density of giant pandas, and the routes for population exchange between Wolong and other groups are intact.

It was shown in Wolong, as in Longxi Hongkou and Tangjia River, that the earthquake did destroy sections of giant panda habitat. However, there was no significant impact on the area’s bamboo because the landslides that occurred were on steep slopes or cliffs that are not ideal for bamboo growth. However, the bamboo in Wolong’s lowlands was destroyed. Fortunately, it had previously been noted that giant pandas were no longer living in the lowlands, thereby reducing the impact of this loss. It was therefore determined that there is enough bamboo in Wolong to supply the needs of the 143 giant pandas that have been recorded living there.

On July 16, 2012, the Sichuan Forestry Department team for the 4th National Giant Panda Census in Wolong had a pleasant surprise when they photographed a giant panda cub. The cub was found in the high altitude grasslands at 3,000 meters. The presence of the cub shows that Wolong is recovering from the earthquake damage.

Reconstruction after the Earthquake: Everything is Improving

In the 1980s, China and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) successfully cooperated on giant panda research in the Tangjia River Nature Reserve. Since then, some universities and research institutes have conducted smaller scale research in Tangjia River Nature Reserve.

After the earthquake, Tangjia River Nature Reserve put forward the idea of developing the nature reserve more scientifically, increasing their access to information and acquiring advanced technology. In 2009, a scientific research team was created with the sole purpose of studying the giant pandas, takin and golden monkeys in Tangjia River Nature Reserve. The team included the Zoology Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, and West China Normal University. Concurrently, the Zoology Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences established the Tangjia River Takin Research Center, The Chengdu Panda Base formed the Tangjia River Wild Panda Research Base, and the West China Normal University founded the Practice Base. Since 2009, more than 100 papers have been published in China and abroad.

The cooperation also introduced advanced scientific identification methods to Tangjia River Nature Reserve. When a sample is collected its GPS coordinates are recorded and marked on a map at the reserve. Then, experts study the giant panda feces and hair using 11 microsatellites. Microsatellites are used as molecular markers in genetics. They searched for fresh feces and hair in Tangjia River and Dongyang Valley Nature Reserves, collecting 201 samples, which were oriented by GPS and marked on the map of each nature reserve.

Results of the giant panda study show that the samples collected at Tangjia River came from 22 male pandas and 19 female pandas. The sex of one panda could not be identified. These results show that there are at least 42 giant pandas living in the reserve. This is an increase of four individuals since the 3rd National Giant Panda Census in 2004,which found 38 giant pandas.

The data also shows that the giant pandas living in the reserve have a high degree of genetic diversity. As the reserve is connected to other panda habitats, it provides conclusive evidence that the group is not isolated.

Studies have also shown that die reserve has ideal habitat for giant pandas. There is abundant bamboo, caves for cub rearing, and virgin forest Since the 1970s when Tangjia River Nature Reserve was set up, all of the people living within the boundaries of the reserve have been relocated. This has enabled the Reserve staff to enforce the ban on forming, logging, collecting of medicinal plants and herbs, herding, and mining. All of these steps have enabled the ecosystem within the reserve to rejuvenate.

Another advancement after the earthquake was the installation and use of infrared camera surveillance technology in all reserves. This technology reduces the need for extra manpower, decreases human interference within the reserves, and collects data throughout the day.

Anzi River Nature Reserve has captured nearly 7,000 images of wild animals with the infrared cameras they installed in late 2008. The animals spotted include giant pandas, takin, sambar deer, serow, Tibetan macaque, red pandas, ocelots, goral, bharal, black bears, lady amherst pheasants, golden pheasants, and many more. Some of the rare images were published by National Geographic magazine, WWF, and Conservation International. The images are valuable both for the natural state the animals are in, and the fact that they show the state of the animals after the earthquake.

Tangjia River Nature Reserve has also set up infrared cameras. Their 100 cameras have collected 1,000 images since they were installed. These pictures offer important foundational information for assessing the impact of the earthquake to the quality of wildlife habitat.

It’s not just the nature reserves that have been working hard since the earthquake, both the 5 Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda are at the forefront of many giant t panda projects.

The Chengdu Panda Base has opened a National Key Laboratory on site, and has built the Dujiangyan Field Research Center for Giant Pandas. The Field Research Center will be used to help prepare captive born pandas to be reintroduced to the wild. On January 11, 2012, the first six giant pandas were moved to the center. This field center will further research to save giant pandas in the wild.

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding also has the advantage of being in Chengdu, which is strong in communication, information, and human resources, and contains many colleges and institutes.

Wolong also has a new giant panda research center that is funded by the Hong Kong Government. The center is in Gengda Village and will be a world-class scientific re-M search and breeding institute.

The new Dujiangyan m Disease Control Center will also be contributing to giant panda disease research. Together with the Ya’an Bifengxia Panda Base and the China Giant Panda Research Center, it will form the “Once Center, Three Bases” giant panda conservation complex.