The first tour buses pull up to China's Wolong Nature Reserve just after lunch. Giddy from the drive past polluted towns and chemical factories, the passengers stagger out into the parking lot and make their way to the four white-tiled souvenir booths. Cigarettes, lighters, backpacks and almost everything else for sale bears the likeness of China's national treasure, the panda. After stocking up on tchotchkes, the tourists move on to the Panda Center to experience the real thing: 43 pandas being raised in concrete pens. Wolong, home to about 10 percent of all China's pandas, is the largest of 33 reserves in the country and the most popular by far.
At Wolong, tourists have ample opportunity to reflect on the plight of this tragic animal. The bears, which live only in China and were put on the endangered-species list in 1984, have been declining in population for decades. A survey in 1974 showing that pandas in the Wolong forest had dropped to an alarmingly low 145 prompted the government to set aside the 500,000-acre reserve. It did little good. A 1986 survey, the most recent, turned up only 72 of the creatures at large. Judging from the paucity of recent citings, scientists suspect that the population in Wolong has dropped below the 1986 level; all told, fewer than 1,000 pandas are left.
Now scientists know why the animals are disappearing. A team led by Jianguo Liu, an ecologist at Michigan State University, compared satellite images of the Wolong taken in 1965, 1974 and 1997 and did some scouting on the ground. Their efforts, reported in the journal Science last week, show that the Wolong forest has deteriorated markedly since the reserve was established in 1975. In the panda habitats, trees have actually been disappearing at a faster rate than before the reserve was created, and quicker even than the forests immediately outside the reserve.
Once the scientists had identified the problem, the cause became obvious: tourism. Chinese authorities say 30,000 tourists visit each year; a local paper says it's more like 140,000 a year. Everybody agrees that tourism has risen markedly since the panda reserve was created. Just last February, the reserve signed a deal with Luneng, a power company from Shandong province, to upgrade tourist facilities in the area. "We are exploring the area for suitable sites at the moment to find out what can be arranged," says a Luneng official.
The problem is not the tourists per se, but the industry that has sprung up to service them. The biggest culprit is smoked pork, a regional specialty. "In the past," says Liu, who grew up in Hunan province, "no one sold smoked pork. But if you have more tourists buying more pork, that will encourage local residents to produce more. Producing more pork requires fuel wood [to cook it]." Electricity is available, but you have to pay for it. Firewood is free--just cut down a tree.
Although logging is illegal, locals (mostly poor Tibetan farmers) have managed to clear away vast swaths of forest at low altitudes. A few years ago, they started going to higher elevations, closer to where the pandas live. It doesn't take much to disturb the finicky bears. Although Wolong forest elevations vary from about 1,200 meters to 6,250 meters above sea level, the pandas thrive only in a narrow band between 2,250 and 2,750 meters. Females give birth only once every two years and prefer to raise their cubs inside hollow trees. Logging destroys denning sites. And by creating gaps in the forest, it cuts off segments of the population from one another, possibly causing the animals to inbreed and lowering their birth rate. Exacerbating the problem, the population of local residents swelled 70 percent between 1975 and 1995, to 4,260.
It is not uncommon for residents who live near reserves to compete for resources with endangered species. The challenge for conservationists is to provide locals with a way to benefit from tourism that doesn't destroy the local habitat. In China's Wanglang region, for instance, local farmers serve as tour guides, sell handmade crafts and stage cultural performances. "You have to help local people find ways to earn a living," says Karen Baragona, a panda expert at the World Wild-life Foundation. "You can't do conservation in a vacuum."