‘Ah, we were so close today’. After 11 days of hiking in Changqing National Nature Reserve our American visitor, Chris, finally got to see a wild giant panda, but it was very fleeting. With only a blurry photo through thick bamboo as a record, it almost doesn’t count for Chris. Wildlife watching and photography is a passion for Chris and he has spent months at a time travelling to all corners of the globe in search of some of the world’s most iconic and, sometimes endangered, animals; tigers in India, jaguars in Nicaragua, mountain lions in the United States. While his time here has been sometimes difficult and trying, Chris is not interested in getting his photo from going to a breeding centre or zoo. He is after the real deal; a wild panda not habituated, not released, not herded towards the paying ‘customer’, not radio collared / micro-chipped. The effort and struggle is part of the lure.
The stories that I have been told are that the likelihood of spotting wild pandas in Changqing is pretty good, despite their well-known elusiveness. The photos on display in Changqing’s recently opened Visitor’s Information Centre confirm this, indicating that, not only are sightings seemingly common, but that a very close encounter with them is possible. As we head back to Huayang, tired and just a little frustrated after being so close, yet so far, we discuss the possible reasons behind our lack of success and what this means for tourism based around seeing pandas.
Are there less pandas this year? Changqing was one of the first nature reserves established in the Qinling Mountains back in 1995. Research concluded that the area had the highest density of pandas in the world. Since then, the government has continued its efforts in conserving panda habitat, establishing a network of connected reserves across the Qinling Mountains. We wonder whether the pandas are beginning to spread out a little as they discover secure habitat in the adjacent reserves. While obviously this is a positive outcome for pandas, it might mean our task of finding pandas may be a little more difficult.
Are we looking in the right areas? Changqing, while covering over 30,000ha, only allows tourists into certain areas. When on a specialised wildlife encounter tour, visitors are taken to either Baiyangping or Daping, which are located within the reserve’s designated core habitat area. Access is via old logging tracks, with only two along the valley bottoms vehicle accessible. The smaller valleys branching higher up into the mountains are steeper and the former logging tracks have been allowed to regenerate. Hiking is required into these areas while accessing the ridges requires finding your own way up (following your guide’s lead, of course).
For the majority of our time, we stick to the valleys based on the guides’ previous experience in finding pandas at this time of year. While there is plenty of evidence to suggest pandas have been low down in the valleys, all the signs (panda poo, scratch and scent marks, broken bamboo and footprints in the mud and snow) appear to be at least a week old. With a warmer than usual winter and a lack of a decent snowpack, the pandas seem to have headed for the ridges a little earlier this year in preparation for the upcoming mating season. On Chris’ 11th day in the reserve that is where we head and it is here we have our closest encounter. But, getting up the steep and sometimes slippery slopes requires a good level of fitness and is not feasible for some visitors.
Are the pandas avoiding us? The trails we are hiking along are rather overgrown with bamboo and we sometimes have trouble navigating our way through without making some noise. For an animal that tries to avoid contact with other pandas for most of the year (preferring to save energy due to their poor diet and communicate through more indirect ways such as scent-marking) creating excessive noise is a concern. Also, as our guide Jack informs us, the older pandas of Changqing have been somewhat habituated to humans through the previous research of Professor Pan Wenshi of Peking University. However, research involving direct contact with pandas ceased years ago, with current research in Changqing utilising infrared motion-sensing cameras (the use of radio-collars has been banned for all first-grade protected animals in China). Thus, there are likely to be less pandas that are ‘used’ to humans in the future, perhaps decreasing with it the possibility of human interactions with wild pandas.
With all this running through my head, I wonder whether there are ways we can improve the probability of seeing pandas in the wild. Can it be done without compromising their protection and how important is it that visitors find their panda? These are not easy questions to answer and they often form the centre of debate surrounding the benefits and impacts of wildlife tourism. While some conservationists argue that wildlife tourism can negatively affect wildlife population dynamics, their behaviour and habitat, others contend that, if managed appropriately, it can make important contributions to biodiversity conservation. The United Nations Environment Programme is just one of many organisations that have recognised these benefits, highlighting wildlife tourism’s potential to raise awareness of the animals observed and their habitat, to create revenues for conservation and to bring jobs and economic opportunities for local communities. It is particularly significant as many iconic wildlife are located in rural areas of developing countries, some of poorest regions of the world with pressures to exploit the surrounding natural resources.
Changqing and the village of Huayang are certainly showing signs that they are benefitting from the opportunities that increased tourism to the area is bringing. The presence of wildlife, in particular pandas, is a major motivation in tourists coming here. But, as highlighted above, finding pandas in the wild is no easy task. Having only been discovered by the outside world in 1869, they have a history of keeping to themselves. Our experience over the past week has me wondering whether we should be lowering our expectations on seeing a panda in the wild and what this would mean for tourism to places such as Changqing. Wildlife tourism needs to be both sustainable in terms of maintaining the animal populations and their habitat but also maintaining the tourist industry. If the tourist experience does not live up to expectations, it has the potential to affect visitor numbers, putting at risk the associated development and conservation outcomes.
While sighting a panda was the aim, our ventures into the reserve over the preceding week had us the fortune of at least knowing we were in the company of pandas. On the trail of a fast-movingyoung panda (too fast for us to keep up across such tricky terrain) having discovered its fresh pawprints, we hear its mother call out to it, who had separated to feed nearby. Another day, we hear two males involved in a heated discussion as to who should have the chance to mate with the nearby female. These were amazing moments, although I’m sure a face-to-face encounter would surpass those. But, in being out in the reserve on the trail of pandas, I feel as though we have learnt a lot about pandas, how they interact with each other, how they move about their habitat, how difficult their habitat is to negotiate etc., something that a visit to a breeding centre or zoo is unlikely to provide.
In addition, while pandas are the main drawcard, time spent at Changqing has many visitors coming away with a much greater appreciation for the many other wonderful animals that call Changqing home. Our time spent hiking in the reserve has us spotting numerous small groups of golden pheasants, a particularly colourful sight. An old male golden takin was also making a regular appearance having seemingly set himself up around our access road. As a result, we were becoming accustomed to his daily routine of positioning himself across the river in the morning before making his way to the ridge on the opposite side in the late afternoon. We were also fortunate enough to sight a few groups of golden monkeys during our hikes. They’re a little easier spot then the solitary panda, tending to make large noisy movements while travelling from tree to tree. Their constant chatter among themselves is also a giveaway to their presence, while they are also happy enough to sit relatively still in a tree nearby, happy in the knowledge that we’re no threat to them on the ground.
Another highlight was the occasional glimpses of predatory birds; a fish owl roosting in a distant tree, a northern goshawk circling high above. On one occasion we disturbed what appeared to be a very large bird of prey. It quickly flew off with us barely getting a glimpse of it. But, from what we did see, we could tell it was huge. We set off on the possibility of finding what had it in the area and we were lucky enough to find its rather recent kill, a goral. A goral is no small mammal, being approximately 25-40kg and 80-130cm in length so this bird had done well to bring it down. We spot is claw marks in the snow and also its wing marks, a beautiful streak. Based on this, we guess that what killed this goral and what we very quickly saw was a golden eagle, quite a rare sighting.
Thus, while we have not been successful in our pursuit in getting our dream panda encounter, the time spent searching, hiking in the snow, being out in nature, seeing other animals is still an amazing experience. I can understand, though, that this may be a small consolation to those who have travelled halfway around the world with their heart set on sighting a wild panda. For those tourists in which a sighting and photo opportunity will make or break their trip, I would suggest a visit to one of the panda breeding centres or zoos is included in their itinerary as a back-up.
But, if you want to get back to nature, to really get an understanding and appreciation of the environment the pandas and some many other animals inhabit, then Changqing will not leave you disappointed. While the guides here make every effort to try and find a panda for you, sometimes the pandas just don’t want to find you!
Chris has not been deterred and is currently planning on returning to Changqing to again seek out his panda next winter in December or January.
All Images: Christopher S.
Wayne Purcell is the Australian Youth Ambassador for Development at the Changqing Nature Reserve of the Giant Panda.