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2018-02-27 23:26:03 Commentary

On a crisp Friday morning in October, I walked into a tea house off a sleepy street in Pingwu County, in southwestern China’s Sichuan province. Inside, dimly lit rooms clustered around a hazy main seating area. Cigarette smoke drifted languorously from our room into the next.

The day before, Feng Jie and I had driven five hours from Chengdu, the provincial capital, to Pingwu. Feng is the director of the Sichuan office of Shan Shui Conservation Center, a leading Chinese environmental organization based in Beijing. He is middle-aged, or maybe a bit younger, and has the upbeat personality to match his enthusiastic fascination with a group of people once called the baixiong buluo, or “panda tribe.” I was drinking green tea with Meng Ji and Guo Qiang, two of the tribe’s descendants who still live in the nearby Guanba Valley. Both of them are thin but muscular, quick to smile, and even quicker to offer you a cigarette.

Feng, Meng, and Guo had converged in Pingwu to lead the region’s first joint wildlife conservation and anti-poaching patrol between the villages of Guanba and Xinyi, as well as residents of the Laohegou Nature Reserve. We were due to set out on the 20-kilometer trek the following day.

The history of the panda tribe is deeply intertwined with that of Guanba. In 1991, a teacher and author named Zeng Weiyi published a collection of stories on the history of the region from interviews undertaken when he was sent to the area for re-education in the 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution. Zeng’s tales are punctuated with holy mountains, sacred trees, hidden Tibetan shrines, and, most prominently, the panda tribe and their namesake, baixiong, the local epithet for the vulnerable giant panda.

According to the Fourth National Giant Panda Survey, undertaken in 2015, there are barely more than 1,800 wild pandas in China. The steep, thickly forested Min mountains, part of the Hengduan range near Pingwu, are home to around 300 — more than anywhere else in the country. The area’s reputation as a panda sanctuary means that it is critical to protect and study the local environment: Although the giant panda once inhabited a region stretching as far east as the coastal province of Fujian and as far north as Beijing, human disturbance has now reduced their range to isolated populations in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces. Although the giant panda is no longer classified as “endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the fragmentation of its habitat and population continues to threaten its future survival.

Though the numbers of giant pandas are gradually rising, they are mingling with each other less and less, leaving gene pools isolated from one another.

Zeng does not mention the origin of the panda tribe’s name, but it likely comes from the density of the local panda population. From the 1930s, however, as both domestic and international consumers acquired a growing taste for panda pelts, locals began killing the animals for commercial purposes. It is thought that at roughly the same time, there was a mass flowering of local bamboo plants — the mainstay of the pandas’ diets. After bamboo plants flower, they die, and this led to the starvation and deaths of many more pandas in Guanba Valley. The event permanently sullied the reputation of the panda tribe; after China criminalized poaching in 1987, the majority of men from Xinyi were imprisoned for panda hunting and locals stopped using the term “panda tribe” to describe the valley’s inhabitants.

But in the predawn drizzle on the morning after our teahouse meeting, I was witnessing the rise of a new conservationist movement among the erstwhile panda tribe. A ragtag group of local villagers and a number of officials from the local forestry department joined Feng and I in Guanba’s village square. A few kilometers away in Xinyi, a similar team had gathered — the first of its kind in that village — and our walkie-talkies crackled with impenetrable Sichuanese dialect as we shouldered our backpacks in the dim light.

With the support of Shan Shui, local people in Guanba have taken part in voluntary environmental campaigns since 2009. In 2010, they started patrolling the mountains, and in 2015, the Guanba Community Nature Reserve was formally approved by the Sichuan Forestry Department. Today, around 25 people regularly patrol the 40-square-kilometer reserve. Their mission is to protect and monitor the estimated five pandas which still live here, preventing the poaching and trapping of other animals like musk deer and takin, and guard against illegal logging.

So far, the mission has been largely successful. Logging has nearly stopped, villagers no longer illegally manufacture their own makeshift firearms, and a nearly extinct local fish population in the rivers has begun to recover. In order to make up for income previously gained through poaching and logging, villagers have begun producing honey for commercial sale, even to well-known brand names such as L’Oréal.

Now, Feng says, people in the valley are throwing their weight behind the conservationist cause. “The villages share a competitive spirit: ‘If you can do it, then I can too,’” he says. “This is really important and is bringing in other villages [to take part in the project].” The participation of Xinyi, a community once known as “Widow’s Village” after the men there were incarcerated for poaching, is evidence of the growing effort to resolve the region’s environmental issues.

Three days after leaving Guanba, we met the party from Xinyi at Laohegou. The historic joint patrol highlighted the importance of community-based conservation projects in this remote part of Sichuan. At present, China’s nature reserves and protected areas do not include the giant panda’s remaining range. The newly proposed giant panda national park will help unite all of the separate reserves and parks under one managing department of the central government, even though its creation will require the relocation of many people. However, the region’s indigenous inhabitants — including those in Guanba and Xinyi — will be allowed to stay, a move whose success will ultimately depend on how well officials involve the local people in the conservation process.

Residents can take heart from panda protectors in Qionglai, a section of mountains near the Min, whose work has already gained a certain amount of success and closely resembles the project in Guanba. On a deeper level, however, state planning of China’s nature reserves frequently follows local topography instead of wildlife populations, and as a result the genetic connectivity of panda populations has been neglected. In the past 15 years, the number of fragmented panda populations in China has grown from 18 to 33. These rising figures are not a good thing: Though the numbers of giant pandas are gradually rising, they are mingling with each other less and less, and this leaves gene pools isolated from one another, putting the species at greater risk to climate change and sharply lessening their resilience to other threats, both human and natural.

Reconnecting these isolated populations will require meticulous planning and cross-government coordination, followed by the patience to wait for a species renowned for its pickiness to reconnect. Given sanctuary and time they should, but only if those left in the mountains like the villagers from Guanba give them the chance.

Editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Meng Ji and another ranger clear a path through the bamboo on a patrol in Pingwu County, Sichuan province, Nov. 15, 2017. Courtesy of Kyle Obermann)