Peace and Bamboo

Kimi Eisele
March 01, 1994

"Having transcended its mountain home to become a citizen of the world, the panda is a symbolic creature that represents our efforts to protect the environment. Though dumpy and bearlike, it has been patterned with such creative flourish, such artistic perfection, that it almost seems to have evolved for this purpose. A round, rather flat face, large black eye patches, and a cuddly and clumsy appearance give the panda an innocent, childlike quality that evokes universal empathy, a desire to hug and protect. And it is rare. Survivors are somehow more poignant than casualties. Together, these and other traits have created a species in which legend and reality merge, a mythic creature in the act of life. . . . Their time as a species should not yet be over." George B. Schaller, The Last Panda.

A distant holler from the ridges and valleys of central Pennsylvania, Alan Taylor would wake up, most summer mornings for 10 years, in the chilly dawn of the Qionglai Mountains, some 6,000 meters high, in central Sichuan, China. There at base camp in the Wolong Natural Reserve he would eat a warm breakfast prepared by the camp's cook, then hike in the rain nearly 500 meters up through seemingly impenetrable patches of bamboo, scoping all the while for blood-sucking land leeches. With his co-worker, Chinese botanist Qin Zisheng, Taylor checked various reference plots, collecting data on the structure of the forest around him. Their goal, to understand the habitat of the endangered panda—specifically the relationship between bamboo and trees.

Panda Eating Bamboo

The estimated 1,200 or fewer pandas left in the wild are found only along the eastern rim of the Tibetan plateau, home of the Wolong Reserve where Taylor, an associate professor of geography at Penn State, first went in 1983 to study panda habitat as part of the Panda Project, a joint operation between the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and the Ministry of Forestry of the People's Republic of China.

"Serendipity," he says, when asked how he joined the panda project: Renowned zoologist George B. Schaller had called Taylor's doctoral adviser at the University of Colorado, Thomas T. Veblen (who had worked with bamboo ecology in Chilean forests), in search of candidates. Taylor, at the time, was interested "in how understory plants effect the dynamics and composition of the forest overstory." His plan had been to study the influence of shrubs on hemlock trees in temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. "The research problems in China were similar to those I was going to address in the Pacific Northwest," he explains, "so I decided to go to China."

Not long after, Taylor and his wife Kristin, a physical therapist who had gone along to assist him, called a tent just east of the Himalayas their first home. The project has since funded more sophisticated living quarters, but it's still a "rustic camp," Taylor explains, "something like the logging camps of the 1880s in Alaska."

Such conditions, even during the cold, wet Sichuan summers, don't seem to bother Taylor. "It's not miserable to me when I'm there. I'm fascinated with how the world works and I'm getting to figure that out when I'm doing field work.

"Plus," he adds, "the information will be useful for panda conservation. That makes my work even more satisfying."

This summer Taylor will return to the Eastern Tibetan Plateau to work in the southern part of the panda range, within two reserves previously inaccessible to foreigners—testimony to his success with cross-cultural research. "At first," he explains, "there was a real fear of being sent home. It was very insulting to them to have foreign experts brought into the research. There are a lot of deep-seated things behind the scenes."

Yet, since his early involvement with the project, Taylor, who has a limited Chinese vocabulary, has come to better understand the Chinese people. "Personal relations," he acknowledges, "are very important—they have been throughout Chinese history, when personal connections were the only way to get anywhere." In turn, Taylor realizes he is entirely dependent on his Chinese co-workers (usually he shares living space and meals with about 10 others) to keep things running smoothly. "There is a much deeper sense of understanding now. There's a common sense of shared information and knowledge about how things work."

Alan Taylor

The forests in the Wolong and elsewhere along the Eastern Tibetan Plateau grow dense with a bamboo understory and, when undisturbed by people (or chainsaws), with an overstory mixture of conifers and hardwood trees. Such old-growth bamboo forests are the habitat pandas prefer. Large conifers provide ideal maternity dens for mother pandas and bamboos, though extremely low in nutrients, are the breakfast, lunch, and dinner of choice for pandas. Obligate bamboo grazers, pandas need to eat 30 to 80 pounds of it a day. "Pandas have the stomachs of carnivores, but they're herbivores, so they're unable to digest and use for energy much of the bamboo they eat. It would be as if we had to eat an entire lawn per day to get enough," Taylor says. Bamboo virtually means the difference between a panda's life and death. Bamboo—the tall, stiff, pole-like plant people like to make into furniture—belongs to the grass family, although, unlike most grasses, it has woody stems and branches. While typical grasses produce seeds annually, bamboos remain in a vegetative state, producing no seeds, for 40 years or more, depending on the species. They then flower all at once, die off, and regenerate from seed—taking 15 to 20 years to grow back to full size. Such a peculiar cycle would seem to lead to periodic food shortages for the pandas.

A bamboo flowering and die-off in the Min mountains north of the Wolong reserve in the early 1970s caused the death of many pandas and prompted widespread concern for pandas when bamboos flowered in Wolong a decade later. Both the Chinese and American press reported any panda deaths as a result of starvation—due to bamboo die-off. While such propaganda meant more awareness about the endangered panda, Taylor says few pandas actually died of starvation during this second flowering. The hype was unnecessary and, writes Schaller in The Last Panda, resulted in panda "rescues," in which the animals were unnecessarily taken out of their natural habitat and unnecessarily placed in captivity to save them from starvation.

"The bamboo flowering really wasn't a crisis," Taylor explains. Since bamboo species at different elevations flower at different times, pandas can usually find new bamboo sources simply by migrating up and down a slope. Bamboo die-off then, Taylor and his co-workers speculate, is not the most acute threat to pandas.

"Conservation is a people problem," Taylor says. "The ironic thing is that it's also a human desire." The human-related problems in this case, Taylor explains, are illegal logging and poaching within natural reserves and harmful grand-scale logging outside reserves. "Pandas need peace, and bamboo," he says, simply.

Widespread clearcut logging in the panda's bamboo forests now poses a threat to the panda population. Though the Chinese government has set up nature reserves to protect the existing pandas and their habitat, much of the damage has already been done. "These reserves were created after areas were logged," says Taylor, "and they frequently have people living in them who continue to farm their fields and use trees for fuel. So they're not like the national parks we have in this country."

Normally, in a forest without bamboo, a clearcut area would slowly regenerate to mixed forest. But, in mixed conifer and hardwood forests with bamboos, Taylor and Qin found that clearcut stands (whether cut long ago or only recently) grew back only in hardwoods—not into the mixed forest pandas prefer. Bamboo, they determined, precluded the normal recovery process: Mature bamboo choked clearcuts after logging and only hardwoods, not conifers, established. While pandas do live in clearcuts and hardwood forests with bamboo, clearcuts mean a shrinking area of their preferred habitat.

To make matters worse, Taylor and Qin found that clearcuts also mean less food for pandas in the future, after bamboos flower and die off. As they write in a 1993 Biological Conservation article, "recent clearcuts once covered with dense bamboo thickets will in the future be devoid of bamboo." By studying bamboo regeneration from seed after flowering in sample plots in clearcut areas and those beneath closed forests, Taylor and Qin found fewer seedlings and higher mortality rates in clearcuts. Although mature bamboo may temporarily proliferate in clearcut areas, they concluded, once it flowered and died off it had little chance of re-developing in the over-dry open conditions of the clearcut.

In the same article Taylor and Qin write that in the Wolong, 15 to 20 square kilometers of clear cuts were in bamboo die-off areas. "The failure of bamboo to regenerate over this area represents lost habitat for at least four pandas, based on an average panda home range of 4.9 square kilometers." But since panda home ranges overlap, habitat may have been lost for as many as 10 pandas.

However, while clearcuts may seem a disastrous threat to pandas, Taylor highlights the 15 to 20 year period in which bamboos die off as a perfect opportunity to restore the natural forest habitat in clearcut areas. Conifers, normally prevented from regenerating because of the dense growth of mature bamboo, can be re-planted during this time. When the bamboo regenerates from seed, a mixed forest will already be established.

Based on their studies of bamboo forests in the region, Taylor and Qin have provided the background on bamboo forest ecology for an in-depth forest management plan for the entire panda habitat the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shanxi. The plan, written collectively by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and the Forest Ministry of the People's Republic of China, calls for selective cutting practices in the production forests of the region with pandas (only half of the existing panda population inhabits reserve areas). The plan has recently been approved and ratified by the State Council of the People's Republic of China and is now being implemented.

Selective cutting, Taylor explains, will help maintain a balance between timber production and preserving panda habitat. Not only will it foster conifer regeneration for future harvests (conifer is the preferred production timber), it would also prevent the important parts of the forest, from a panda's perspective—food and shelter—from disappearing.

But managing forests to preserve their habitat alone won't save the panda. "The most serious short term threat to pandas is poaching," Taylor says, adding that it's especially dangerous because pandas reproduce slowly; females can raise one young every two years, if that. Once done mostly by locals who caught pandas inadvertently while hunting other species, such as musk deer, poaching has now become more deliberate and extensive, Taylor says. Not to mention profitable. According to Schaller, a panda pelt can be sold by poachers to traders for about $3,000; traders then can resell a pelt in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Japan for over $10,000 each.

"Recently it's rich Southeast Asians who want the skin. In Japan it's an organized phenomenon, and of course a market poaching scheme means more dead pandas," Taylor says. Though the Chinese have reacted to the poaching problem in recent years by sentencing even first-time offenders to life imprisonment or death, laws against poaching are unfortunately still difficult to enforce within the region's dense forests.

To date, Taylor has never seen a panda pelt in China. "That would be too much," he says, acknowledging that they're likely only to circulate elsewhere in Asia. And though live pandas, those Schaller radio-collared and closely monitored during his work with the project, came to be common around the Wolong base camp, pandas in the wild are rarely seen. Whether it is because of the serious poaching problem, Taylor's hunch, or merely because the inherently shy animals are hidden by the dense bamboo, he cannot be certain.

In his ten years of habitat research, Taylor has only spotted two free pandas. The first sighting was while he and his wife were walking down an old logging road seven months after they first arrived in the Wolong. The moment was inspiring, so early in his work, Taylor recalls, and fortuitous: "The bamboo is so dense it's really difficult to see anything. It sort of crossed our path, then disappeared into a bamboo patch on the other side of the road."

The second sighting, less inspiring, seems poignant nonetheless. It was merely a "fleeting glimpse," Taylor says. "Just a patch of white in the mist, if you will. Like watching a phantom."

Alan Taylor, Ph.D., is associate professor of geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, 302 Walker Building, University Park, PA; 814-865-3433. Qin Zisheng is a professor of biology at Sichuan Teacher's College, People's Republic of China. Their research is funded by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and the Ministry of Forestry of the People's Republic of China. References cited include: Biological Conservation, 47, 1989, pp. 83-108; Biological Conservation, 63, 1993, pp. 231-234; George B. Schaller's The Last Panda, University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Last Updated March 01, 1994