Panda habitat not protected by nature reserve, say Science researchers

April 05, 2001

NOTE:This news release is also available in Chinese (PDF). The Japanese translation requires Adobe Acrobat Reader. You may download a version of Adobe's Acrobat Reader by clicking here.

High-quality panda habitats in China's Wolong Nature Reserve have been disappearing faster than or at rates similar to unprotected areas outside the park since the reserve's creation, according to a new study in the 6 April issue of the international journal, Science.

This increased ecological degradation in a protected area may raise questions worldwide about the use and management of reserves as conservation tools. Established in 1975, the Wolong reserve is considered a "flagship" nature park, receiving exceptional support from the Chinese government and international organizations like the World Wildlife Fund.

Population pressure from the reserve's human residents are "the direct driving force behind the destruction of the forest and panda habitat," according to a team of Chinese and U.S. researchers led by Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University. Wolong's local population grew from 2560 people and 421 households in 1975, the year the reserve was created, to 4260 people and 904 households in 1995.

"To a large extent, Wolong's ecological fate represents the success or failure of tremendous conservation efforts" made by the government and other organizations, write the study's authors.

"The effectiveness of protected areas needs to be thoroughly examined and monitored, and new approaches that integrate ecology, demography, and socioeconomics are needed to truly protect protected areas," says Liu.

The Science researchers used remote sensing data, including Corona satellite photographs and Landsat satellite images, to compare forest cover in the reserve and surrounding area before and after Wolong was established as a nature reserve.

The team combined these data with information on elevation, slope of the land, and forest cover preferred by the pandas to rank regions within the reserve according to their suitability as panda habitat.

Liu and his colleagues found that the total amount of high-quality panda habitat, the number of individual habitat patches, and the average patch size within Wolong all decreased at a faster rate after the reserve was established, compared to degradation rates before the reserve's creation. The total amount and average patch size of high quality panda habitat also declined at a faster rate inside the reserve compared to surrounding areas after the reserve's establishment.

In most cases, habitats of average and marginal quality suffered a similar fate of shrinking area and fragmentation. The loss of high-quality habitats is a particular worry because these patches are usually "source areas," where pandas reproduce in higher numbers, says Liu.

Habitat loss is at least partially responsible for the dramatic decrease in wild pandas in the reserve, according to the research team. The wild panda population plummeted from 145 individuals in 1974 to 72 in 1986, and the current number of pandas "is likely to be even smaller," write the Science authors.

Human activities that pose a potential threat to the panda reserves include fuelwood harvesting, farming, house construction, and tourism. With farming and home construction limited to specific areas within the reserve, Liu says that fuelwood collection is "the most destructive force" within Wolong.

"Because forests at lower elevation were largely cut before the reserve was established, forests in areas of higher elevation--usually higher quality habitats for pandas--naturally became new targets of destruction for fuelwood," says Liu.

Tourism also has an indirect effect on the degradation of the Wolong panda habitat, stimulating the local economy in a way that increases the extraction of local resources.

"One of the local products purchased by some tourists is smoked pork. Because food for pigs needs to be cooked using fuelwood, higher demands for smoked pork by tourists leads to more consumption of fuelwood," says Liu.

Although the research team believes that immediate efforts to conserve high-quality panda habitat in the reserve are important, they feel that quality education for the reserve's children may be "the most socially acceptable and ecologically sound way" to limit ecological threats to Wolong. Better educational opportunities could allow residents to attend technical schools and colleges and obtain jobs outside the reserve, according to Liu.

"Our computer simulations suggest that even if only 22 percent of the reserve's young people relocate as a result of attending college, getting married, or taking outside jobs, the human population in the reserve would be reduced to about 700 people by the year 2047, and the giant panda habitat would recover and then increase by seven percent," said Liu.

The Wolong reserve contains about 10 percent of the world's remaining wild giant panda population, and is the birthplace of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the much-celebrated pandas on loan from the Chinese government to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
-end-
The other members of the research team include Marc Linderman and Li An of Michigan State University, Zhiyun Ouyang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, and Jian Yang and Hemin Zhang of China's Center for Giant Panda Research and Conservation, Wolong Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China. This research was supported in part by National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, National Institutes of Health (NIH), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Michigan State University, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, and China Bridges International.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Related Protected Areas Articles from Brightsurf:

Protected areas help waterbirds adapt to climate change
Climate change pushes species distribution areas northward. However, the expansion of species ranges is not self-evident due to e.g. habitat degradation and unsustainable harvesting caused by human activities.

Scientists reveal urgent solutions for boosting Protected Areas effectiveness
New research published today in Nature identifies the actions needed from governments, private entities, and conservation organisations to boost the effectiveness of Protected Areas and other area-based conservation efforts in protecting biodiversity and providing benefits to people.

More than 90% of protected areas are disconnected
Ongoing land clearing for agriculture, mining and urbanisation is isolating and disconnecting Earth's protected natural areas from each other, a new study shows.

Protected areas can 'double' imperilled species populations
A University of Queensland-led research team has revealed that many endangered mammal species are dependent on protected areas, and would likely vanish without them.

Are protected areas effective at maintaining large carnivore populations?
A recent study, led by the University of Helsinki, used a novel combination of statistical methods and an exceptional data set collected by hunters to assess the role of protected areas for carnivore conservation in Finland.

Protected areas worldwide at risk of invasive species
Protected areas across the globe are effectively keeping invasive animals at bay, but the large majority of them are at risk of invasions, finds a involving UCL and led by the Chinese Academy of Science, in a study published in Nature Communications.

Underprotected marine protected areas in a global biodiversity hotspot
Through the assessment of the 1,062 MPAs in the Mediterranean Sea, covering 6% of the Mediterranean Basin, a research team has shown that 95% of the total area protected lacks regulations to reduce human impacts on biodiversity.

Warming climate undoes decades of knowledge of marine protected areas
A new study highlights that tropical coral reef marine reserves can offer little defence in the face of climate change impacts.

Caribbean sharks in need of large marine protected areas
Governments must provide larger spatial protections in the Greater Caribbean for threatened, highly migratory species such as sharks, is the call from a diverse group of marine scientists including Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) PhD Candidate, Oliver Shipley.

Red coral effectively recovers in Mediterranean protected areas
Protection measures of the Marine Protected Areas have enable red coral colonies (Corallium rubrum) to recover partially in the Mediterranean Sea, reaching health levels similar to those of the 1980s in Catalonia and of the 1960s in the Ligurian Sea (Northwestern Italy).

Read More: Protected Areas News and Protected Areas Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.