On the trail of elusive pandas. These engaging, yet fragile mammals have become a symbol of efforts to save wildlife worldwide; Chinese researchers in remote reserves are trying to help them, along with lesser-known takin and golden monkeys
I KEPT hearing hoofbeats under my head - back and forth, back and forth. It was not yet dawn and we were stretched out on bedding on the second floor of an abandoned farmhouse. The night had been a restless one - a long, futile watch at the window, then to bed, only to be awakened by Xiao Wei, a graduate student doing field research, to glimpse the shadowy bulk of one takin after another emerging from the forest to lick salt and romp in a mud puddle.Skip to next paragraph
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I got to the window just in time to see two huge creatures exiting from the floor beneath us, where they had been looking for more salt. The second of the two stopped, and slowly, deliberately, turned his head around. He stared, and then, with immense dignity, snorted and moved on again. His rump looked as broad as the proverbial barn door beneath me. It was unimaginable that he could slip so silently through the bamboo undergrowth.
Takin are a protected species related to the musk ox, with moose-like faces, shaggy coats, and thick curled-back horns. They inhabit much of the same environment as the giant panda, but because they are vastly less appealing in looks and somewhat less endangered, they have not attracted the same worldwide attention. In Sichuan Province's Tangjiahe Nature Reserve, however, they are under intense study.
Tangjiahe, about 400 square kilometers (150 square miles) of rugged mountains, is one of a dozen or so nature reserves set up to protect the giant panda. Of the three we visited in Sichuan, it was the most uninhabited (by humans), and, in mid-autumn with the turning leaves stitching breathtaking brocades on the slopes, the most beautiful.
Access roads built into two main valleys in 1965 and a small cluster of buildings, including accommodations for foreign scientists, were hand-me-downs from logging days. Local inhabitants had been successfully moved out since establishment as a reserve in 1978 (a feat not yet managed at the other reserves we visited, Wolong Nature Reserve and Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve).
A birder's paradise, Tangjiahe is also home to a number of rare mammals, including the giant panda, takin, and golden monkey. Although we visited a field research station and climbed to higher elevations, we never caught sight of the elusive giant panda or golden monkey.
We did, however, come upon fresh panda droppings, which a worker from the field station carefully put into plastic bags for analysis, and saw where the panda had been chewing on the bamboo.
In its over 3 million years of existence, the giant panda, called a living fossil, has evolved two specializations for eating bamboo: forepaws adapted for grasping stems through the addition of a sixth digit, or thumb, and teeth that are broad and flat for crushing bamboo.
Unfortunately, the panda's reliance on an exclusive diet of bamboo has led to its peril. The death of bamboo species and the destruction of habitat through logging and agriculture have caused starvation. The panda's low-quality diet forces it to forage at intervals day and night, rest much and, when active, concentrate on keeping its stomach filled.
Reproduction is slow; pandas conceive after 6 years and raise one cub every two years. If two babies are born, the mother raises only one.
Some scientists feel the panda has lost its sense of struggle and has become defenseless, without the adaptability needed to survive. They say the panda, highly specialized and highly localized because of its choice of a single source of food, provides a living blueprint for extinction. Thus, saving the panda has become a worldwide challenge.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has taken this lovable creature as its representative. WWF has also pumped money and expertise into China's panda reserves. One of these is Wolong Nature Reserve, 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles), established in 1963.
Farming, logging, hunting, and livestock grazing had degraded the giant panda's habitat at Wolong. But in 1975 logging was halted, and in 1980 a breeding and research station was set up in cooperation with WWF. Ten pandas were in residence at the time of our visit, including the baby of them all, Lan Tian (Blue Sky), the first panda born at Wolong through artificial insemination. He is now a bouncy, tumbling, tame one-year-old.
The pandas live well, with house, playground, and plenty of food. When Qiu Xianmeng, their veterinarian, calls them by name, they come.