AsianScientist (Oct. 11 2017) – Scientists in China and the US have demonstrated that increased livestock grazing has damaged a third of all panda habitats in China’s Wanglang National Nature Reserve. They report their findings in Biological Conservation.
The Wanglang reserve is located in the Min Mountains of Sichuan Province, home to the largest population of wild giant pandas in China. The park is one of the oldest and most important of the 67 nature reserves China has established in recent decades to protect wild giant pandas, and national forest conservation policies have helped halt deforestation in these parks.
In this study, a group of researchers led by Assistant Professor Li Binbin at Duke Kunshan University’s Environmental Research Centre analyzed 20 years of monitoring data on changes in the geographic distribution of bamboos, pandas and livestock within the park. This allowed the scientists to model where degradation or loss of panda habitats has occurred. Livestock movements within the park were tracked by GPS collars.
The researchers found that livestock numbers within the park have increased by nine-fold in the past 15 years, corresponding with the degradation of one third of all giant panda habitats in the park.
“Increasing numbers of free-ranging livestock inside the reserve’s forests have caused tremendous impacts on bamboos, which constitute 99 percent of the giant pandas’ diet,” said Li. “What is worse, overgrazing has reduced the regeneration of these bamboos. Local communities leave their livestock to free range in the forests and only come to feed them salt twice a month, so the livestock feed on the bamboos year-round, especially in winter.”
“If grazing is left uncontrolled, we are going to lose huge amounts of suitable panda habitats, to which we have devoted so much effort to protect in the past decades,” Li added.
Professor Stuart Pimm at Duke University in the US, who is a co-author of the study, also noted that the pandas are being driven out of lower elevation areas that are crucial for their survival during winter and spring. On-the-ground observations of panda activity in the park’s valleys support the model’s findings.
“We have found fewer signs of pandas in these areas in recent years,” said Dr. Luo Chunping, a staff scientist at Wanglang National Nature Reserve who co-authored the study.
The study’s authors also suggested numerous factors that could be driving local communities to increase their use of the reserve for livestock grazing. The federal ban on logging, the policy to revert previously cleared cropland on steep slopes back into forests and the increased consumer demand for meat in local markets were some of the key factors highlighted.
Also exacerbating the problem were a sharp drop in tourism income in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that hit the region in 2008 and unclear government policies about financial compensation for farmers who agree to remove their livestock from protected areas.
With the loss of so many other sources of income, raising livestock in the forested areas has become an increasingly popular livelihood. The researchers are working with local communities and other stakeholders to more fully understand the socio-economic drivers of the rapid increase of livestock grazing in the park’s forests in recent years, and identify potential solutions.
“These problems are not unique to our study area, but common throughout the panda nature reserves and habitats. It is not just an ecological problem, but also a gamble between the communities, the nature reserves, local governments and other stakeholders,” said Assistant Professor Li Sheng at Peking University who is a co-author of the study.
“Instead of just a livestock ban, we need to find alternative livelihood practices for the local community, like job opportunities in tourism or forest stewardship, which are preferred by the locals we interviewed,” Li said. “Reduce the number of livestock in panda habitats, promote better ways of raising livestock, and find the balance between panda conservation and local development. These are our goals.”
The article can be found at: Li et al. (2017) Free-ranging Livestock Threaten the Long-term Survival of Giant Pandas.
Source: Duke University; Photo: Li Binbin.
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