At the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP15 meetings, held in Kunming last October, China officially unveiled plans for five mammoth new national parks. One covers the headwaters of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers in the Himalayas; another protects threatened tiger habitats in the country’s far northeast. But it was the Giant Panda National Park that immediately captured the public’s attention.
This was partly due to a misunderstanding. Pandas are already among the country’s best protected species. After dropping to perilously low levels in the second half of the 20th century, the wild panda population has rebounded to over 1,800. Their habitats are guarded closely: China has more than 65 officially recognized panda reserves spread across three western provinces. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is home to a sprawling research base dedicated to their study and protection. Given all these existent preservation efforts, it still really necessary to dedicate an entire national park to their conservation?
Yet, although China’s panda conservation efforts represent a notable bright spot on the country’s environmental record, it would be a stretch to call them an unqualified success. The most notable challenge facing conservationists is what’s known in Chinese as the “nine dragons” problem. Put simply, there are too many cooks in the kitchen, as the lack of uniform work standards, resource allocation, and collaboration across the country’s various panda reserves threatens to erode the gains of the past four decades.
Prior to the establishment of the Giant Panda National Park, China’s central government had approved 67 giant panda nature reserves across three provinces: 46 in Sichuan, 14 in Shaanxi, and seven in Gansu. Of these, a handful of national-level reserves, including the Wolong National Nature Reserve and the Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve in Sichuan, as well as the Foping National Nature Reserve in Shaanxi, enjoy abundant funding and experienced leadership, allowing them to produce high quality research and conservation results.
The planned extent of Giant Panda National Park. From Chengdu Municipal Development and Reform Commission, reedited by Sixth Tone
But many provincial- and county-level reserves are plagued by a lack of resources, poor pay, and other obstacles. Significant imbalances exist even between national-level reserves. For instance, the Baishuijiang Nature Reserve and the neighboring Wanglang Nature Reserve both enjoy national-level status, yet the latter has a far lower administrative ranking, which means less manpower, funding, and access to technology and equipment.
These gaps are some of the problems the establishment of the Giant Panda National Park is meant to resolve. Moving forward, reserves at all levels are being brought into a unified management structure, with resource allocation and personnel management adhering to the same overall structure. For smaller reserves stretched to their limits, this change could prove significant.
Another aim of the new national park system is to help the country strike a better balance between the interests of protected species and the humans who have lived alongside them for generations. When a herd of elephants left their reserve in the southwestern province of Yunnan last year and headed into the city, their trek attracted worldwide attention; it also highlighted long-hidden tensions between animal conservation and rural development needs. Currently, the lands directly adjacent to the future Giant Panda National Park are home to more than 200,000 people; residents’ and officials’ ability to manage the relationship between humans and nearby protected species varies widely from community to community. Although human-panda interactions in the wild are less risky than human contact with elephants or tigers, many smaller, cash-strapped reserves have still struggled to adequately compensate residents whose homes fall within their borders.
This touches on a deeper conceptual question, one that will define the eventual success or failure of China’s national park project: What exactly is a “protected area”? Historically speaking, various giant panda reserves have had vastly different understandings of this issue: Some partially opened themselves up to tourists and commerce, while others remained closed to the public to keep panda habitats isolated.
The current plan for the Giant Panda National Park tries to split the difference, according to the principle of “conservation first and shared by all.” Each area under the jurisdiction of the National Park is expected not just to protect their local panda populations, but also to provide ecological and environmental education services to the public in accordance with local conditions. The ultimate goal is to turn the park into a space where visitors can learn about pandas and get closer to nature.
To that end, the Tangjiahe Nature Reserve in Sichuan is being developed into a “nature education center” that will provide environmental education services to thousands of nearby residents and other visitors — especially middle- and elementary-school students — each year.
The intended openness of the new national park system is also reflected in its embrace of enterprises and nonprofit organizations. As part of the plan, the central government wants to “encourage individuals, enterprises, and public welfare organizations to participate in giant panda conservation.” Some of these projects are commercial in nature, including the creation of concessions in non-essential areas of the parks where private individuals — especially local residents and enterprises — can develop forest-based economies or engage in other services, from popular science education farming and conservation.
An aerial view of a newly-built exhibition center in Giant Panda National Park in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Nov. 22, 2021. Tao Ke/Redstar News/People Visual
But the parks also represent a step toward greater cooperation with nonprofit and other social organizations. Already, no fewer than 20 such groups are working with various panda reserves in some capacity. In the past, these partnerships existed in a legal gray area, neither encouraged nor outright forbidden. By increasing access, China could help foster closer partnerships between official parks and unofficial civic groups with an interest in conservation and environmental protection.
Of course, the creation of the Giant Panda National Park will not immediately resolve every lingering issue afflicting Chinese preservation work. The national park covers an expansive swath of mountainous areas, and it remains an open question how best to construct needed access and fire-prevention roads, among other pieces of critical infrastructure. The process of resolving personnel issues could likewise prove difficult in the face of entrenched bureaucracies. Ultimately, much will depend on the government’s willingness to pay for grassroots conservation staff, facilitate their professional advancement, and train the next generation of conservationists.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A panda eats bamboo in Chengdu, Sichuan province, 2019. 500px/People Visual)