A panda eats a new year cake in the Fuzhou Panda World on December 28 last year, where the first four pandas were transferred from the Sichuan earthquake-hit areas. (Global Times Photo)
The panda's losing battle with economic development obsesses animal conservationist Fan Zhiyong.
The 51-year-old former "technical official" at the State Forestry Administration is now Species Program Director at the World Wide Fund for Nature Beijing Office (WWF), where he manages wildlife conservation programs including communication with the government and field work.
Working in animal conservation for 20 years, he identifies a new danger to pandas from economic development: the isolation and fragmentation of the panda habitat created by the construction of infrastructure poses a serious threat to the ecology of the species.
"The construction of highways at nature reserves permanently dissects the panda's habitat, obstructing migration, mating and healthy gene exchange," Fan told the Global Times.
As humans increasingly surround their habitat, many panda populations reside in belts of bamboo no wider than 1 kilometer, according to the WWF China website.
The panda likes to wander far and wide, but its habitat has been disjoined into isolated little patches. Within these patches, a network of nature reserves provides protection for more than half of the panda population.
"Highways and hydropower stations are separating pandas from each other and their homes," he said.
Those tiny remaining pockets of pandas also risk inbreeding, he warned. Inbreeding reduces resistance to disease and lowers reproductivity and ultimately, the chances of survival.
For the first time, Fan raised his normally gentle voice.
"If the panda cannot mate with those from other habitats," he said, "it may face extinction within two to three generations.
"We have to act now."
He predicted the panda's habitat will become increasingly cut off and isolated in the next 20 years. He conceded the old dilemma of economic development versus nature is not an easy one.
"We may have to give up building some infrastructure or the panda will face a bigger threat to its existence than in 1980," he said.
"I don't know the solution to this problem," he admitted with a forced smile.
Fan studied wildlife animals at Jilin Agricultural University to solve a personal problem of his own: he wanted to escape the countryside.
He enrolled in Jilin Agricultural University in 1977, the first year university entrance exams returned to China after the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
As a "privileged urban youth" who had been sent "down to the villages" to "learn from the peasants," the Xinjiang native confessed he grabbed at the chance to leave his village. He picked wildlife animals as his major as it "seemed to be quite good fun."
Fan said his job requires love and patience.
"I want to do what I can to let the next generation see what I'm able to see today.
"Perhaps all animal conservationists are idealists," he smiled.
Constant persuasion of different groups of people to help them understand the importance of ecology often tests his patience to the limits.
To keep the panda habitat intact, he said they had to try to change the lifestyle of local farmers who shared forest with the pandas.
With the human population increasing in the countryside, the traditional way of life for local farmers that included logging to build their houses threatened the panda's survival.
Fan helped farmers look for alternatives to support themselves, like herb gathering and beekeeping. For example, the WWF helps farmers make honey into a brand and sells it at a Carrefour supermarket in Sichuan Province.
"Locals are willing to keep the importance of protecting the panda in mind if their interests have been considered," he said.
Through the combined efforts of local people, the WWF and the government, the number of giant pandas has actually increased from 1,000 to near 1,600 from the 1970s to the present, he noted.
As a veteran of panda protection, he is often asked the same question: How many pandas is enough?
"The question is meaningless in itself," he said. "Answers depend on if we speak from a panda or human perspective." The better question to ask is how many pandas should we keep in a healthy ecology system in China?
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