Giant pandas like to be left alone. They rarely meet each other in the wild, and resolutely avoid humans. So is it a good idea to encourage tourists to go looking for them? Conservation scientists are in a quandary over just this question. And not least those working for the world's most active panda protector, the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature.
This summer, the WWF helped a tour company to take the first British tourists to one of China's most remote panda reserves, at Wanglang in northern Sichuan. But embarrassingly, the party left just days after a paper in the journal Science blamed tourists for the decline of another more famous panda reserve. "Tourists don't see themselves as a destructive force, but they are. Even eco-tourists," said its author, Lianguo Liu of Michigan State University.
Is the fund, which chose the giant panda as its emblem, risking the future of the species? Or is it right for tourists to provide the cash needed to save this secretive creature? In March, with the snow still melting in the clear mountain air of northern Sichuan, I visited Wanglang to find out.
Wanglang is situated among bamboo-forested slopes on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Roughly the size of the Isle of Wight, it is one of the smallest of China's network of 33 panda reserves. But "geographically it is very important," said the reserve manager Chen Youping. "We are part of a corridor of panda habitat that stretches round the northern edge of Sichuan province."
Pandas need bamboo to eat and forests to provide cover and shelter. Only in these remote regions of south-west China does such habitat exist today. The reserve has a constant stream of researchers passing through, but what they won't see is pandas. Nobody here had seen one in the wild for three years, said Chen. Only their droppings.
Pandas leave a lot of droppings. They eat 40kg of bamboo a day, and three-quarters of the fibre leaves the body undigested amounting to about 30kg of droppings being deposited each day by every panda. And, because each panda has a distinctive bite, a quick examination of the droppings reveals which panda left them behind. From such analyses, Chen reckons that there are 32 giant pandas here.
In the bare, cold buildings of Wanglang's staff barracks with intermittent electricity, primitive heating and a single standpipe in the yard the WWF-funded equipment of digital cameras, laptop computers and global positioning technology sticks out. As does the new 50-bed visitors' quarters, another gift from the WWF, partly paid for through planned tourist revenues.
But there is no moaning from the Chinese reserve staff as they sit at their desks in overcoats. The luxury quarters house the tourists that fund the reserve. And the new global positioning kit is used to plot the locations of the droppings to the nearest metre and the terrain of each panda.
Here, and elsewhere across China, the technology is being used to help the current national panda census, which may finally tell China how many pandas it has left. Most expect the final tally will be less than a thousand. But, while the WWF makes a persuasive case for allowing just a few rich Western tourists to pay for conservation science while trying their luck at spotting a panda, the local Chinese have grander and potentially more destructive ideas.
Most of the officials I spoke to were hell bent on developing this outpost into a honey pot for mass tourism. For Wanglang, in Pingwu county, is suddenly a hot tourist venue for the increasingly mobile Chinese.
Until three years ago, Wanglang and the surrounding valleys and wooded mountains were effectively shut off from the outside world. They were the preserve of the country's logging industry. The only roads were logging roads, and the only income was logging income. Only the reserve itself, established in 1963, was exempt from the constant whine of chainsaws.
But since China banned logging nationally in 1998, the valleys of Pingwu have been quiet and while the threat from logging has passed, everyone is looking for another source of income. And tourism is it.
Once, the locals hated the Wanglang reserve because they could not cut the trees inside. Now it is the bait to entice outsiders and their money. Former loggers are being retrained as nature conservationists. "I think I am in charge of more pandas than anyone else in the world. We have around 300 in this county," says Wei Qingrong, the director of Pingwu's forestry bureau.
Yang Zhu is the head of the local Baima tribe, some of whom got rich in the 1990s running logging and trucking enterprises. He lives in a village almost next door to the abandoned North Sichuan Timber Processing Centre. "Now eco-tourism is our major hope," he said as we huddled over a small charcoal fire in his office. "We are building guest houses so tourists can stay in our villages. We hope for many Chinese visitors and thanks to WWF we had two foreign groups last year, and more this year." How many tourists would he like? "The more the better," said Yang with a grin.
He hopes to see a thousand people a day passing through his village this summer en route to the reserve. And that is a problem for Wanglang and other panda reserves, say scientists. The fear is not only that the tourists will disturb the pandas, but also that their habitat will be further wrecked as locals try to meet their demands.
That message was rammed home in April when Chinese scientists based in the US reported on their analysis of newly declassified satellite images of Wolong panda reserve, also in Sichuan, which, at the size of Warwickshire, is China's largest and best-known panda reserve. Its work has been supported by WWF for 20 years.
Wolong probably contains a tenth of the world's pandas. But the images revealed that the creation of the reserve and its emergence as a major tourist attraction appeared to have been a disaster for the pandas. Destruction of panda habitat inside the reserve, they revealed, is greater than in the mountain forests outside and four times faster than it was before the reserve's creation in 1975. Liu estimated that panda numbers inside the reserve have fallen from about 150 when the reserve was created to fewer than 70 today.
The main reason, Liu concluded, was the influx of some 50,000 tourists a year to Wolong. "Booming tourism has helped transform the reserve. It has stimulated the extraction of natural resources," said Liu. The 4,000 or so locals are plundering the reserve's resources, especially its timber, to meet the demands of tourists for food, heat, shelter and presents to take home.
Tourists are a much bigger threat than poachers, who are deterred by the heavy penalties, which until recently included the death penalty, for panda poaching. And, besides the pressure from tourism, some conservation rules inside the reserve may be damaging the environment, says Liu.
People in the reserve have remained dependent on natural resources, such as wood for fuel, in a way that people outside the reserve have not. "Wolong's ecological fate represents the success or failure of tremendous conservation efforts by the Chinese government and many international organisations, such as the WWF." Sadly, it looks like failure.
Karen Baragona, a biologist who works on pandas at the WWF in Washington DC admits the difficulties. "We know that tourism in panda reserves has to be handled very carefully. But at the end of the day, tourism also generates revenues for reserves. That's the dilemma."
Wanglang is different from Wolong in that there are no permanent inhabitants in the reserve. But many of the local pandas live outside the reserve part of the time, close to the Baima villages, and will undoubtedly face pressure on their habitat as mass tourism gets going here.
WWF's point man for the eco-tourism project in Wanglang is Li Shengzhi. He is encouraging all the villagers to build accommodation for tourists and wants to help them sell clothing, honey and other produce to tourists. He sees such initiatives as an essential element in building local support for nature conservation in a country where it normally takes a poor second place to making money.
"If we can show the authorities here that the environment and development can work together, the benefits for the whole of China and its wildlife could be huge," says Li. The underlying message is that the giant panda must pay its way in the local economy. But the lesson of Wolong is that, if wrongly handled, tourism holds the potential to be the final nail in the giant panda's coffin. One day, the pandas may not just be hiding. They may be extinct.Reuse content