WASHINGTON - December marks the 25th anniversary of wild panda conservation by World Wildlife Fund and China. On December 23, 1980, World Wildlife Fund and Chinese researchers headed into the cold mountains of southwestern China to conduct the first-ever intensive research program on wild pandas, their habitat and their behavior. A quarter century of work moved giant pandas from the brink of extinction to a solid foundation for survival if conservation efforts continue.
"Contrary to popular myth, wild panda conservation is really about saving their forest homes, not improving their breeding," said Karen Baragona, head of the Species Conservation Program at World Wildlife Fund. "Wild pandas can be randy pandas when no one's watching so World Wildlife Fund's making sure they have safe and healthy places to live - and a little privacy of course."
Protecting panda habitat means protecting some of the richest temperate forests on Earth that shelter more than 100 other mammals, 250 bird species, and thousands of other animals as well as the water supply for 400 million Chinese people.
"The most pressing threat to wild pandas is habitat fragmentation from economic development activities like road construction and timber extraction," said Baragona. "World Wildlife Fund's using a recent WWF-Chinese government panda survey to identify unprotected areas where pandas are present and trying to get them protected. Already, we've had some success - there were about 40 panda reserves when we released the survey results in June 2004; today there are almost 60."
Across the panda's range, habitat is fragmented into many isolated patches - some just narrow belts of bamboo 1100-1300 yards (1,000-1,200 meters) in width. Within these patches, a network of nearly 60 nature reserves protects nearly half of panda habitat. Small, isolated populations have less flexibility to find new feeding areas during periodic bamboo die-offs. WWF works with the Chinese government to reduce threats to panda habitat, restore forests and reconnect isolated patches by establishing new panda reserves in critical corridor areas.
Protecting panda habitat sometimes requires unusual efforts. Communities living on the outskirts of panda reserves often extract fuelwood - illegally but of necessity - from inside the reserves, amounting to about three tons a year per household. In several pilot sites, WWF offered farmers energy efficient stoves fueled by manure. Reconfigured pig sties and restrooms capture waste in a reactor tank and the gas produced in the tank is fed to stoves for cooking. With waste from just two pigs, a family can cook three times a day for at least ten months of the year without taking fuelwood from surrounding forests. People are happy with the arrangement because it saves the time and effort of collecting fuelwood, their food cooks faster, and odor and insects have been virtually eliminated from pig sties and toilets. Now the provincial government is considering subsidizing widespread conversion to biogas stoves.
When it began working on wild panda conservation, WWF became the first international conservation organization to work in China and opened the door to new conservation opportunities that benefit wildlife, places and people in the world's most populated and fastest growing nation.
Over the past twenty-five years, WWF achieved numerous conservation successes in China - from laying the foundation for a scientific panda conservation plan to bringing Pere David's Deer back home to protecting over eight million acres of critical wetlands under the Ramsar Convention.
Small conservation achievements underlay larger ones. For example, WWF helped local villagers make and oversee plans for restoring reclaimed farmland to its former wetland state near Dongting Lake in Hunan Province. Villagers also participated in developing alternative livelihoods compatible with wetland conservation, establishing fish breeding and eco-agriculture associations. Over the course of this WWF restoration project, household incomes increased fivefold.
But, there are many challenges to building a sustainable future for China. WWF is still working to halt biodiversity loss in China, stop the degradation of freshwater systems and water quality, and build a culture of sustainability among other efforts.