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Counting Pandas

Rob Schmitz Jun 28, 2011

This week in the remote Wanglang Nature Reserve in China’s Sichuan Province, seventy scientists will begin to count giant pandas. China takes a giant panda census every 10 years, but it’s a trickier job than knocking on the entrance of a panda den and asking the resident pandas to fill out paperwork. Scientists will instead look for panda droppings, full of clumps of hair, and try to ascertain the number of pandas through DNA sampling of a variety of hair and fecal samples.

It’s a good thing China’s counting its pandas, because nobody seems to agree on how many there are. As it happens, I was in Wanglang Nature Reserve last week on a reporting trip. A Wanglang staff member told me there were 60 pandas roaming the reserve. A day later, we met Wanglang Director Chen Youping. He told me there were 23.

Why the discrepancy? Chen wasn’t sure. He’s eager to find out what the census takers find, because he — along with many in the environmental community in China — is wondering how the 1998 logging ban in this area impacted the giant panda population. That ban put a good portion of Pingwu County (where Wanglang and other nature reserves that have significant giant panda populations are located) out of work.

The government replaced the lost revenue with another revenue generator: hydropower. So instead of logging, the unemployed of Pingwu County began building dams, and made even more money than when they depended on the forest for revenue.

Much like logging, the dams that are scattered across the county have done significant damage to the region’s pristine ecosystem. I saw this firsthand on the treacherous road that serves as the only artery into Wanglang. The road winds around what locals call Water Buffalo Reservoir, an enormous lake created by a dam that was constructed five years ago just miles away from the reserve. The new lake is surrounded by steep hillsides that have recently eroded, causing entire swaths of mountain to slip into the water.

On our way out of Wanglang last Wednesday, we waited for half a day for excavators to clear a landslide that had taken a football field-sized portion of the road with it down into the lake below. As I waited, I looked across the newly created lake to the other side, where entire hillsides of dense forest — giant panda habitat — had collapsed into the growing body of water. The remaining pandas may have their trees back, but they’re beginning to fall into the water.

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