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Friday, 6 April, 2001, 19:46 GMT 20:46 UK
Human threat to panda reserve
adult panda
Panda numbers have been steadily falling
The habitat for endangered giant pandas in China's flagship Wolong Nature Reserve, is being destroyed even faster than unprotected areas, says a study by American and Chinese scientists.

The report, published in the journal Science, has added to fears about the animal's possible extinction and points to the fact that more needs to be done to protect the animal.

Wolong's human population
1995: 4,260
1975: 2560
Researchers say the massive growth in human population in the reserve, which was created in Sichuan province in 1975, is to blame for the destruction of the forest.

The chopping down of trees for fuel, farming, Chinese herbal medicine collection and tourism are the key human activities which threaten the survival of the park's panda population.

Scientists say that in 1974, one year before the park was created, 145 wild pandas lived there. Twelve years later they found only 72 - and they fear that number has fallen.

Economic problem

Pandas need a temperate mountain forest with trees that provide a shade for the bamboo they eat, as well as large trees to nest in.

panda eating bamboo
Bamboo is the pandas' staple
Using satellite data dating back more than three decades, the researchers found that desirable panda habitats within the park's 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) have been fragmented and degraded.

The study suggests that the rate of devastation may be equal or greater than that of unprotected areas due to a variety of factors:

  • Ethnic groups who account for more than 75% of the reserve's population are not subject to China's one-child policy

  • Local families are estimated to have 2.5 children so the population grow at a higher rate than elsewhere in the country.

  • Few households can afford electricity or coal used more commonly outside the park, and therefore resort to wood for cooking and heating.

  • Tourists - of which there are about 50,000 a year - buy large amounts of the local delicacy, smoked pork, which requires burning more wood.

Depopulation

Lead researcher Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University hopes to discuss the problem with the Chinese Government soon.


New approaches that integrate ecology, demography and socioeconomics are needed to truly protect protected areas

Jianguo Liu, lead researcher
He says the park's residents should be offered better education, therefore giving the area's young people more opportunities to find jobs outside the reserve after college.

His target is to reduce the population of the reserve to 700 people - from more than 4,200 - by 2047, allowing the panda habitat to recover.

The Wolong reserve has received considerable backing from China and environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund.

Mr Liu says it is now necessary to re-evaluate how to help local people and help the wildlife at the same time.

"New approaches that integrate ecology, demography and socioeconomics are needed to truly protect protected areas," he said.

Only about 1,000 pandas are estimated to remain in the wild.

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