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A War of Pandas and People

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 00/12/03; December 3, 2000.]

By Philip P. Pan

Washington Post Foreign Service

Friday, December 1, 2000; Page A01

WOLONG NATURE RESERVE, China -- With the steady swing of an ax, Dong Guanzhong splits one of the many logs piled in his yard, sending a loud crack echoing through this cold, fog-shrouded forest in the Qionglai mountains, home to some of the world's last pandas.

Technically, people aren't supposed to live in this section of China's oldest and best-known panda reserve. Technically, cutting down trees in a sanctuary established to protect the panda's natural habitat is illegal.

But winter has arrived, and Dong needs the firewood to keep his two little children warm inside their shack, which has no electricity or other source of heat. He needs the firewood to feed the stove so his family can eat.

"We need the wood to survive," he says.

More than two decades after the struggle to save the giant panda from extinction became an international cause celebre, the greatest threat to the species is no longer its difficulties breeding, or poachers after panda pelts, or even the lumber companies that cleared vast stretches of forest where the creatures once roamed freely.

The panda's greatest enemies today are people such as Dong: poor farmers, often Tibetans and other ethnic minorities, whose families have lived in these mountains for centuries--and who are slowly destroying the panda's habitat simply by trying to create a more comfortable life for themselves.

Asked if he worries about the impact of tree-cutting on his furry neighbors, Dong replies: "I can't worry about the environment. I have to worry about my family. Are pandas more important than people?"

This is the central question now facing those who wish to rescue the panda. In many ways, it illustrates the complexity of China's effort to lift millions of people out of poverty while limiting the impact of economic growth on an already badly damaged environment.

Authorities estimate that only about 1,000 pandas remain in the wild, forced into the mountains of southwestern China after rampant commercial logging destroyed great expanses of woods below.

But there has been progress recently. Stiff penalties have reduced the threat from poachers. A 1998 ban on commercial logging appears to have stopped large-scale destruction of forests. And China has established 33 panda reserves, covering half the animal's habitat.

Today, the panda remains endangered in large part because tens of thousands of people live in and around these reserves. They continue to cut down trees for firewood and timber, which stunts the growth of bamboo that pandas eat and chips away at what little is left of the pandas' world.

The government says it cannot relocate these people because many don't want to move, and because it has nowhere to put them in a country with a population of 1.2 billion and a shortage of arable land. And officials say they can't stop the tree-cutting completely.

The fact that many residents of the reserves are ethnic minorities only complicates matters because officials are wary of being accused of discrimination.

"It's a serious problem. There's a conflict between conservation and development," said Li Zhong, chief of China's division of giant panda administration. "We try to tell them, 'If you don't protect the environment, future generations won't see these animals. . . . It doesn't mean we don't care about you.' "

The situation in Wolong is typical. An estimated 110 pandas live in this mountain reserve between the Sichuan Basin and the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. But so do more than 4,300 people, two-thirds of them ethnic Tibetans.

Many of these families have lived here for generations, scratching out a living by clearing land to grow vegetables, searching the woods for mushrooms and herbal medicine, and setting snares to catch animals for meat, musk and skins. They describe their way of life with a simple saying: "Live on the mountain, depend on the mountain."

Now the Chinese government is trying to stamp out that way of life by strictly regulating or outlawing farming, hunting, tree-cutting and even walking in the forests.

"It's good to protect the panda, but it's harder now on us poor people, the people who live here," said Fa Mingzhi, a 44-year-old Tibetan woman who has resorted to peddling panda dolls to tourists to survive. "Everything has changed for us, and we don't get any of the money you Americans pay to help the pandas."

The government has tried to educate local residents about the impact of their activities: land cleared of trees is land taken from pandas; large-scale gathering of herbal medicine may harm the delicate ecosystem; snares set for other animals often kill pandas, too.

Residents in Wolong say they understand. But many complain that laws protecting the panda have made it harder for them to improve their lives at a time when so many others in China seem to be getting ahead.

Some curse the world's fascination with the creature.

"The pandas? I don't care about them! You Americans love the pandas, but it makes our lives more difficult. There are limits on everything we do now," said Zhou Li, 33, an ethnic Tibetan farmer. "People care about pandas more than they care about us. They don't care if we get sick. But if a panda gets sick, everybody runs to help it."

Wolong officials acknowledge that local residents bear the brunt of policies protecting the panda. Instead of enforcing a ban on tree-cutting, authorities have tried only to limit the damage to the forest by regulating where, when and how much each family can cut.

"All this clearly affects the environment, but people have to eat. People need heat in the winter," said Zhang Zaiqing, deputy director of Wolong's public security bureau.

The impact on the forest is greater than before because Wolong's population has grown by more than two-thirds in the last 20 years. China's one-child policy does not apply to the country's ethnic minorities, and most women in Wolong have more than two children.

Wolong officials maintain their work has improved conditions for the panda and that more of the animals were sighted during patrols this year.

But a recent study by a team of Chinese and U.S. researchers that made use of aerial photos concluded that suitable panda habitat in Wolong has declined by 8 percent, or more than 18 square miles, since the reserve was established in 1975. During that time, the annual amount of firewood and timber used by Wolong's residents more than doubled.

If wood use and population growth continue at current rates, another 81 square miles, or 37 percent, of Wolong's panda habitat would be lost in 50 years, the study predicted.

"The government has put more money into panda conservation than any other endangered species, but the results are not encouraging," said Jianguo Liu, a professor at Michigan State University and one of the study's authors. "All indicators show the panda habitat has continued to decline."

Replacing firewood with electricity or other energy sources and moving people out of Wolong could reverse the process, Liu said, but under the best circumstances it would still take decades for the forests to recover.

Liu said computer simulations show the most cost-effective approach would be to focus on relocating younger residents--by sending them to college, for example.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the government tried moving entire families out of the reserve. It didn't work. People who had spent their entire lives in these mountains were unequipped to survive elsewhere, officials said.

"The government gave them money to move, but only a few took the money, and then they came back, too," said Tang Chunxiang, deputy director of Wolong's panda research center, where Washington's two new pandas are being prepared for their journey to the United States next week. "They're used to the traditional lifestyle in the mountains. They don't want to start over."

The government also tried concentrating hundreds of residents into a part of Wolong where they would do minimal damage to the panda habitat and even built a large apartment complex for them.

But not one of the families moved in. People simply refused to exchange their plots of land for apartments, despite promises by the World Food Program to provide them tons of rice and vegetable oil.

Wolong officials have tried to raise living standards, partly to compensate residents for the new restrictions and partly because they hope more prosperous families might consume less firewood and venture into the forest less often.

Over the years, the government has built new roads and schools, expanded access to electricity and promoted tourism to create new jobs. Wolong officials say living standards here now exceed those in neighboring communities. But residents complain that many of the new jobs in Wolong are being filled not by locals, but by new migrants to the reserve, usually members of China's majority Han ethnicity. Many also say they can't afford to pay what the government charges for electricity or for enrolling their children in school.

And hardly anyone has stopped using firewood.

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