Rangers work hard to protect giant pandas in shrinking habitats during spring mating season

Source:Agencies-Global Times Published: 2018/4/18 18:28:39

Beyond tourist-friendly bases and fun live streaming is a tough job to save pandas from various threats

Rangers who guard the habitat of wild pandas are often ignored by media and panda fans

Due to their exhausting and demanding work, many panda rangers quit after just one or two years

Rangers disagree that pandas are no longer an endangered species, as their natural habitats are shrinking

Giant panda Zhang Meng is released into the Liziping Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province on October 10, 2016. Photo: VCG

Fu Qiang takes off his camouflage rubber boots and then his socks. He looks carefully into his boots to check for leeches. Indeed, more than 10 leeches have been spotted squirming around.

"We can eat a cold leech dish," Fu, director of Anzihe Nature Reserve's protection division in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, tells his two colleagues, half joking. The three men have been patrolling the mountains in Anzihe, which is inhabited by giant pandas, for several days.

While the three are well prepared for attacks from leeches, they are still unavoidable. After taking a shower later that night, one of Fu's colleagues found his arms and waist had several bloody cuts left by leeches. Luckily, the wounds are not serious.

Leeches, according to Fu, are just one of the many small difficulties encountered during their patrols. When these rangers patrol the reserve, which often takes days or even weeks, they are totally isolated from the outside world.

"My family has become accustomed to my 'lost mode,'" said Fu.

There are six rangers at Anzihe Nature Reserve, all of whom have 10 years experience on the job. On average, these rangers wear out a pair of rubber boots every two weeks, with over 100 patrols logged each year, and a total annual mileage surpassing 500 kilometers.

While a large and growing number of international fans are getting to know Chinese pandas and their keepers through live-streaming, rangers like Fu who guard the animal's habitat are often neglected.

It has been reported that most panda reserves are understaffed and their employees often under-qualified, as many employees do not have a college degree. Many quit the job within one or two years, as the working conditions are exhausting and demanding.

China's central government designated several mountain regions in Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces in the 1970s as protection zones or national parks to protect the habitat of pandas and other wild species that inhabit the areas.

"But apart from the Wolong, Tangjiahe and Wanglang nature reserves, most reserves only have several people watching the entire area," Hu Jinchu, an 89-year-old giant panda expert, told the media.

Panda protection workers observe a giant panda in a nature reserve in Sichuan. Photo: VCG

A tough job

Fu started working at the Anzihe reserve back in 2008. Before his arrival, the reserve was called "one person's protection zone."

To better protect the panda's natural habitat and sustain their reproduction, Sichuan set up 11 giant panda protection zones in 1993, with Anzihe chosen as one of them.

Wang Lei became Anzihe's first ranger, and for many years he was the only one. Back then there were no tents, sleeping bags or GPS. Wang had to rely on local guides, paper maps and sleep in a makeshift tent.

"On rainy days, my military blanket would become so heavy that I could hardly lift it," he said.

Twenty-four years have passed, but the only thing that has not changed is the boots the rangers wear. "Professional climbing boots can protect our ankles, but the price is too expensive. Military boots are cheap and don't slip, making them the best for us to patrol these mountains," said Wang.

According to rangers, they must also record every trace of wild animals, fight against poachers and promote animal protection ideology among local residents.

Li Delei, 33, is a ranger in Longxihongkou, a nature reserve in Sichuan Province, also inhabited by wild pandas. He recently finished his spring patrol mission of the mountains.

Leading a team of 19, the 33-year-old also shoulders another tough yet interesting job - finding wild pandas.

The period between March and April is mating season for pandas. The fourth nationwide panda census showed that there are 10 wild pandas living in Longxihongkou's 40-square-kilometer area.

As one of the 35 panda reserves in China, Longxihongkou is an important habitat for a specific panda species. As it connects the Minshan and Qionglai mountain ranges, both of which host the world's largest panda species, Longxihongkou has been dubbed the "love corridor."

But finding wild pandas, according to Li, is pure luck, as close contact with wild pandas is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

Rangers must pay attention to every little detail in the habitat. Li's team is required to conduct a thorough research of the area, tracing the pandas' movements and also bringing back their excrement for further analysis.

They recently spent four days in the mountains "eliminating dangers" for pandas seeking courtship further down the mountain. Spring is also the busiest season for poachers, when they lay down traps that cause harm to pandas and other wild animals and forest resources. Rangers must manually disable and remove all of these traps.

Every day, each team member carries luggage and equipment weighing over 10 kilograms. Inside are rice, vegetables, instant noodles and some meat. The meat is a luxury, as it is likely to spoil when temperatures rise.

One of Li's colleagues had to leave after his first day of patrolling, as his knee has been injured in a previous mission. But the man still managed to walk 10-kilometers down the mountain road that day.

Protect their land

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published the Red List of Threatened Species, in which it downgraded the giant panda from "endangered" to "vulnerable."

The report was based on data collected by Chinese authorities in 2014's fourth nationwide panda census. The census found that there were 1,864 wild pandas, an increase of 17 percent compared with 2005.

China's forestry authorities, however, said the report did not represent the true status of giant pandas, which remain endangered.

Experts also found that, due to fragmentation of habitats and human activities, wild pandas are facing greater risks today.

"The range of human activities is enlarging while the living spaces of wild animals are shrinking. We need to protect their land," said Wang.

These rangers' hard work has ushered in positive changes. At Anzihe reserve, the number of pandas has almost doubled to 16. Other noticeable changes are also happening.

Fu said that, a decade ago, illegal herb picking by local residents was rampant in the protection zone. After a crackdown on such illegal activities, regional herbs are thriving again.

"Herb picking will bring destructive blows to certain species. In an ecosystem, the life and death of any species will have a butterfly effect on everything else," he said, noting the importance of protecting vegetation.

Last year, China initiated the construction of a panda national park, in which Anzihe reserve was included. In August of 2017, rangers there were finally equipped with more advanced intelligent devices and CCTV cameras were installed along the boundaries of the reserve.

At Heishuihe reserve in Sichuan Province, a wild panda seeking a mate was spotted on March 15, only 2,000-meter away from human habitat.

Agencies - Global Times

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Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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