Parting ways with pandas

Updated: 2011-05-05 07:54

By Yi Ling and Sun Yang (China Daily)

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 Parting ways with pandas

Two giant pandas at the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas before the Sichuan earthquake. Li Wei / For China Daily

 Parting ways with pandas

The earthquake destroyed many buildings in the Wolong region. Zhu Jianguo / China Daily

Parting ways with pandas

The relocation of the panda center in Sichuan's Wolong reserve may have been a big blow to the livelihoods of Tibetan and Qiang people in Wolong town, after the 2008 earthquake. But all is not lost. Yi Ling and Sun Yang of China Features report.

The Wolong region covers some 200,000 hectares of rich vegetation in Wenchuan county of western Sichuan province. It is home to 10 percent of the world's wild giant pandas and was home to more than 60 percent of its captive-bred population until an 8.0-magnitude earthquake hit the province in 2008. All the pandas in the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas, based in Wolong town, had to be moved to a safer location after the earthquake.

A new center is being built in Shenshuping, about 22 km northeast of its original location. Although still located within the Wolong National Nature Reserve - the first and largest of its kind in China for the protection of pandas - it lies outside Wolong town.

Sponsored by the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, it is expected to be completed by the end of 2012. The captive-bred pandas, now housed in a temporary base elsewhere in Sichuan, will return to live in their new home.

For the 3,000 plus residents of Wolong town, mostly from Tibetan and Qiang ethic groups, the panda is more than a source of pride - it is a symbol of the region. They call them the "white bears".

Ma Xujue, a 48-year-old farmer, says "the move is a heavy blow for us. The quake took away almost everything we had. Now they are taking away the pandas.

"We have been told for generations that we must not hurt pandas. My father told me the fur on its belly has a special, almost invisible pattern, which is connected with our ancestors," Ma says. "Our hunters would give up hunting for the day if they ran into pandas in the forest."

When Ma first saw wild pandas on the way home from school his mother called him "lucky" and said he was blessed.

"We love pandas and treat them with awe," he says.

For centuries, these groups have lived harmoniously with the pandas. When the Wolong reserve was established in 1960, the local government reclaimed some of their farmland to grow bamboo, as food for the pandas. Hunting and practices that could damage the vegetation, such as collecting herbal medicines, were banned.

In 1980, the Wolong center, the world's largest research body for breeding pandas, was built. And the local government tightened the rules further.

"It was a hard time. No hunting. No logging. We grew vegetables and raised pigs and chickens for sale," Ma says.

The Ma family, along with some of the other villagers, became bamboo suppliers for the center. This brought in a stable income, but even so "some villagers left Wolong (town)".

Good fortune came to those who stayed. In the late 1990s the Wolong center was opened to the public. Tourists streamed into the peaceful mountains to admire the pandas. Businesses like restaurants, hostels, and workshops selling local specialties such as mushrooms and bamboo shoots, flourished.

The town received an average of 240,000 tourists yearly and 40 percent of its residents earned their living from tourism, says Du Jun, the town's Party chief.

"Summer is the peak season. Our villagers earned 50,000 to 60,000 yuan ($7,695-9,234) per family per year. This was three times what they made from farming," Du says.

However, the quake rolled back all this prosperity. Six farmers died, buildings were destroyed, roads damaged and farmlands were covered in rock and mud. Ma's village had to be abandoned.

"We have seen hardly any tourists in the past three years," Du says. "It's a shame. We have a saying that 'those who live on the mountains die on the mountains'. That's true for our villagers."

Three years after the quake, abandoned homes dot the town like tombstones.

Frequent landslides and poor transportation have hindered the reconstruction of Wolong town. There are just five tiny clusters of new buildings erected in neat rows in the Balang River Valley.

Ma and others moved into their new two-story homes, all built by the villagers themselves, before February, 2010. The Balang River flows through a riverbed, like a thin, gray-blue ribbon, pulled taut across the damaged landscape.

In the new compounds, it's easy to spot men leaving home on mud-covered motorcycles to construction sites kilometers away.

"We couldn't have continued living on our old farms because it's difficult to cultivate lands covered with trees and weeds, a haven for wildlife," he says.

Before the quake, Ma's family earned about 30,000 yuan per year by growing bamboo and vegetables. Now they work at a construction site and make 4,000 yuan per month.

But they are concerned about the future because the building contract will only last until the end of 2011.

"Visitors go where pandas go. Who can we sell our products to if they don't come here?" Ma asks.

Amid these growing doubts, Du Jun and his colleagues have come up with plans for the farming of high-value crops, and small tourism related projects.

With small loans from the government, villagers are being encouraged to grow mushrooms and herbs, raise yaks, chickens and pigs.

In addition, a bottled-water plant and a factory for processing organic vegetables is being built, providing more than 150 jobs.

"Although we won't have captive pandas, we still have wild pandas and bears to protect. We will invite villagers to patrol the forests from 2012. They can earn 8,000 to 9,000 yuan a year," Du says.

Meanwhile, Ma is considering raising a rare cold-water fish species which natives call "shibazi", or "stone fish".

"This fish is a hot commodity in towns. They can be sold for more than 600 yuan for a kilogram. The shibazi lives in high altitude areas like Wolong. I want to give it a try," he says. "Life has to move on, even with no pandas around."

But pandas still hold a place deep in Ma's heart. He feels sorry that his 18-month-old grandson will not get to live close to the animals.

"It's shame for a Wolong heir. But when he is older, I will take him to the pandas' new home," he says.


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