The world of the wild panda trackers
Liang Chunping and Luo Chunping are members of one of the world’s smallest professions. They are wild panda trackers employed by the Wanglang National Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, home to nearly 300 giant pandas.
Liang and Luo, both at their 30s, share the same given name and the same passion for nature. They joined the reserve after leaving the army ten years ago and have been chasing giant pandas through the bamboo forests of the reserve ever since. They were trained by zoologists, but mainly rely on their instincts and physical fitness to keep pace with their surprisingly sprightly and elusive quarry.
The trackers are currently collecting preliminary data for China’s fourth national Giant Panda census, due to take place in June. The previous census counted 1,200 wild pandas in Sichuan Province, including 260 in the Wanglang reserve.
When three reporters from china.org.cn joined them, Liang and Luo were collecting images and data from 36 infrared cameras recently installed around the 322-square-kilometer reserve. They also collect Panda droppings for DNA analysis. The DNA allows zoologists to track individual pandas and accurately estimate the number of pandas living in the wild.
Wanglang is the first reserve to use infrared cameras. Camera surveillance allows researchers to monitor the activities of the pandas at different seasons and weather patterns, and helps with conservation planning. Other reserves are likely to follow suit.
If trekking through mountain foliage sounds tough, the reality is even tougher. There are no paths at all and the reporters struggled to keep up with the trackers — who kindly pointed out they would normally cover the same ground in one third of the time.
People think pandas are fat and clumsy, Liang said. But that’s because they only see them in zoos. In their natural habitat things are very different.
“Wild pandas have very acute sense of hearing and smell. They are actually very agile,” said Liang, “A 20-minute route for a wild panda would take a human two hours,” he said. Tracking pandas is hard work even for the professionals it seems.
Luo and Liang stopped from time to time to sniff tree trunks for panda urine and check bamboo stalks for bite marks. Whenever they find a trace of panda activity they use their GPS to record the exact location. They also collect trash left by careless hikers.
As we were finally running out of breath at an attitude of 2,975 meters, we arrived at a camera emplacement. Luo and Liang carefully took the camera from its hiding place amid bamboo stalks. Luckily, the camera had captured two images of a panda, one of its head and the other of its rear. The camera recorded the panda visited at 6 pm on April 17.
After retrieving the information they needed, the patrollers replaced the camera. Regularly checking the cameras is now part of their daily routine.
Asked if he ever gets bored living in the mountains with no cell phone connection, TV or Internet, Luo said, “If you stay here long enough, you fall in love with the fresh air and the amazing views. Every day brings a new challenge. The reserve is my home, and there’s no place like home.”
Entry filed under: Giant Pandas.