GRASP : Cute, Cuddly, and Critically Endangered: Pandas and Orangutans Face Differing Futures



Wolong Nature Reserve is a Chinese protected area located near the border with Tibet. It is the oldest, largest and most famous giant panda reserve in China, established in 1958 due to concerns over drastic losses of bamboo forest habitat. During a visit to Sichuan last February, I was fortunate enough to find a guide willing to drive me out on a day trip to the reserve, where a vast area of bamboo forest is now under fierce government protection. On an early morning I set off on a two-hour drive to the reserve with Fugui, a locally-born ethnic Tibetan who works at Panda Mountain, an organisation that runs multiple conservation projects in Wolong.



The road to Wolong Nature Reserve is treacherous. On May 12 2008 the Sichuan earthquake rocked the region, leaving 70,000 dead, 375,000 injured and displacing millions more across the province. Portions of bridges collapsed and large sections of the road were obliterated by rockslides. Fugui was unable to contact his family, who live out towards the reserve, for months. The only current access to the reserve exists in the form of makeshift roads plowed through the rubble, connected by tunnels able to withstand the disaster. Weaving through a steep-sided valley, there is still high risk from landslides, but Fugui assures me of his experience in both anticipating and avoiding the falling rocks, having driven the road daily for almost a decade.



The reserve was only seven miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, leading to the deaths of 5 staff members and discovery of 15 wild giant panda bodies. Reports suggested that up to 80% of wild bamboo habitat was affected by the earthquake, and many areas were buried under huge landslides. In the year following the earthquake, the future of the giant panda as a wild species was frequently questioned. BBC wildlife expert Chris Packham even went so far as to suggest, ‘Giant pandas should be allowed to die out’, arguing that the money was wasted conserving a species with not enough habitat left to save it. It was clear that the future of the giant panda was in jeopardy as a result of rapid habitat loss and fragmentation in China, and many researchers gave them only three generations until extinction...


By Conor Gask

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