It’s been just over a week since I published my World View, “It’s time to get real about conservation” in Nature. The response to this op-ed has been, at least to me, nothing short of astonishing and a bit overwhelming. Individuals have actually commented on it on Nature’s web page, it’s ricocheted around the Twitterverse, and I’ve gotten a handful of new followers and dozens of direct messages and emails thanking me for the catharsis (really!) of writing what others have thought about but haven’t been willing to say aloud, looking for advice on moving into conservation careers, and probing for ways to support conservation activism and activists. A few asked for additional background data, examples of biodiversity triage, and more suggestions for what to do next. So I thought I’d use some plane time between Kunming (China) and Tokyo (Japan) to provide a bit of background on the op-ed, give credit where credit is more than due, and to expand on some of the key points.
After a final night in the city of Ya’an, Sichuan Province, we headed north back into Shaanxi Province, following the Bao Jiang (Bao River) towards Baoji. We were on a small, older road, but it is being replaced by the new Baohan Expressway. This superhighway will run 200 or so kilometers (at least 12o miles), and will have been built, start to finish, in about 3 years. According to Chen Dong, building a highway like this is considered an “easy” project: it follows an existing route (in this case, right up a riverbed; the existing road is built above the river on an old terrace), uses established precast concrete technology, and takes advantage of China’s immense and hungry labor force.
But I think that it marks the end of the road for the Qinling panda. The sign at left, overlooking a reservoir (photo below; ironically established as a national wetland reserve – once the lake behind the dam silts in, it should be a very nice wetland!), reads: 熊猫故里 (xióng māo gù lĭ), literally the “hometown” of the panda, but idiomatically meaning “pandas once lived here [in this their native home], but they don’t anymore.”
We had hoped to get to the Wolong Panda Reserve, but the roads, damaged by the 12.V.2008 Wenchuan earthquake (mganitude 8.0) and more recently by heavy rains and flooding, were not passable. We re-routed to Beichuan, which was the city closest to the epicenter of the earthquake, the ruins of which have been left standing as a memorial to the >87,000 people who died and > 15,000,000 who were displaced and relocated.
We did pass through what had been panda reserve lands, but which now, more than eight years after the earthquake, have few, if any, pandas remaining. All the pandas that had been at the Wolong breeding center were relocated after the earthquake to Chengdu (see yesterday’s post, below).
After two weeks in downtown Xi’an, I, along with Professor Chen Yi-ping, graduate student Chen Dong, and an indefatigable driver Liu, set out on the morning of 29 August for a 6-day road trip through the Qinling Mountains of southern Shaanxi Province, northern Sichuan Province, and Gensu Province. The goal of this excursion is to introduce me to the two subspecies of panda (the Qinling and the Sichuan), their remaining habitat, and the challenges associated with conserving this iconic endangered species.
And of course, I am hoping to actually see a giant panda!