Giant Pandas and reflecting on home

Last month I had a most interesting week in Sichuan learning about giant pandas, thanks to Iain Valentine, Director of the Giant Panda Project at Edinburgh. Iain’s colleagues in the China Conservation & Research Group on Giant Pandas (CCRGGP) showed us their work and took us into some amazing places.  This was my first visit to China so everything was new and exciting and different – Chengdu city has a population of 18 million, a far cry from my home town of Forres in Moray. I visited three of the panda breeding centres but Wolong, in its impressive valley in the mountains of Sichuan, was the high point of my visit.

Here we saw the old Wolong base, much damaged by the 2008 earthquake, and the new panda HQ, which is a most impressive place built with funds from Hong Kong – its state of the art tastefully built with local stone and landscaped with trees and bamboos. There were already 8 groups of enclosures capable of holding 30 breeding females, as well as maternity units, laboratories, offices and a most impressive education centre. On two days we hiked to field stations in remote valleys, where teams of field staff carry out field work and have built large electric-fenced enclosures as training sites for the gradual release of captive bred pandas. It was great to see the teams in the field – including graduates and professors dedicated to field conservation, with an ethos based on large ecosystems.

The Wolong Nature reserve itself is 200,000 hectares, while the larger Sichuan panda ecosystem is twice the size of the Cairngorms National Park at nearly a million hectares. It contains 7 giant panda reserves as well as other protected sites and the aim is to improve connectivity throughout the whole ecosystem. The giant pandas are the flagship species but these mountains rising from 1200 to 6250 metres are a biodiversity hotspot: 5-6000 species of plants including magnolias, rhododendrons and bamboos, many of them endemic, making it the richest of any temperate region. 109 mammal species including clouded and snow leopards, golden cat, golden
monkey, red panda, takin and white-lipped deer, and over 365 species of birds, 300 of them breeding including Tibetan-eared and white-eared pheasants.

There’s more panda ecosystem in the next provinces to the north and the latest estimate of giant pandas in the wild is 1864, based on field signs and DNA. 66% of them live in panda reserves belonging to the State Forestry of China.  The aim is to restore damaged parts of the forest range and increase their numbers; even now with the lower total and the size of the available habitat the population looks to be long term secure. Looking out over this incredible range of mountains with their jagged snowy peaks and deep valleys of native forests and bamboos I could see the importance of giant pandas. An icon of conservation in China (and worldwide) which forges an incredibly strong worldwide partnership, led by China, to conserve this special bear and its incredible ecosystem.

As ever when abroad, this time sitting on a rocky hillside in the backyard of the giant panda, I thought of nature conservation back home and it’s very worrying. It’s embarrassing to have to tell foreign colleagues that 99% of our native forests have gone. We have to do better and stop kidding ourselves that we are conservation leaders in the world. We must fast track the restoration and conservation of large ecosystems to secure our nature, and our future. For me that means that ecosystem conservation should take precedence over economic activity in some 40% of our land and seas. Pro-active work in the field must be aided by sound research not held back. We need to be more entrepreneurial for nature, always aim high, recognise the importance of icons and remember to say ‘when’ not ‘if’. For example, on the world stage, it would be a shocking failure if the lynx were not restored to Scotland by 2020.

Very best wishes to you all for 2016

nov 2015 281 (Medium)