New Panda Preserves Suggested

29tlab_panda480.jpgThe magnitude 7.9 earthquake that killed more than 70,000 people in Sichuan Province in China last year also struck the world’s remaining wild populations of giant pandas. Scientists knew the impact on the animals’ habitat was severe, but most of the attention was on the immediate damage at one protected area, the Wolong National Nature Reserve, which is home to about 150 of the country’s roughly 1,500 pandas as well as a breeding center. Now a study using satellite imagery has put some hard numbers on the quake’s long-term impact. In one of the hardest hit areas, the southern part of the Minshan Mountains, about one-quarter of the panda habitat, or 135 square miles, was destroyed by mudflows and landslides. The flows also had the effect of fragmenting much of the remaining habitat into smaller patches.

In a paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Weihua Xu and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences detail the destruction in South Minshan, which is home to about 35 pandas and contains four reserves. They suggest that several new protected areas be created in the region, and that new corridors between fragmented areas be established “to ensure the long-term sustainability of the giant panda population and habitat.”

Dr. Xu and his colleagues used satellite images from before the quake, supplemented by fieldwork, to identify areas of suitable panda habitat — forested, not-too-steep mountain land at elevations between 3,300 and 12,500 feet, with plenty of pandas’ staple food, bamboo. Then they compared post-quake satellite images to determine where mud- and landslides had obliterated the habitat. They found that habitat in the region was reduced from about 590 square miles to 455.

Fragmentation of panda habitat has long been a problem in China, but in the past it was mostly due to deforestation and other human activities. In an email message, Dr. Xu said that while the scope of the new fragmentation was difficult to quantify, “the isolation of pandas got worse after the earthquake.”

The researchers recommended that three new protected areas, totaling about 120 square miles of habitat, be established, along with two small corridors to allow pandas to move between the old and new reserves. They also suggested that because most of the intact panda habitat is now at lower elevations, where the possibilities of human disturbance are greater, that the government consider relocating some people who live in scattered plots throughout the protected areas.

Dr. Xu said he thought there was a “high possibility” that some of the recommendations would be adopted, and noted that some of his team’s habitat analysis had already been used in planning for reconstruction of the region. But relocating people, he noted, “is a big issue which needs further analysis.”


By Henry Fountain

Source: The New York Times 

February 2018
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