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.
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.
Mr. Qiu took us to an area where year-round field research on the ecology of giant pandas and other wildlife is carried out. The mountain trail wound through densely moss-draped evergreens and tall rhododendron. The leaf-strewn path was etched in white, the serenity of the surroundings occasionally quickened by gleaming red birches. Musk-deer droppings and hoofprints were the only signs of previous travelers.
Midway, our guide got out his listening apparatus to monitor the movements of pandas wearing radio collars - two red pandas and two giant pandas. We could hear the tick-ticks, faster or slower, depending on how active the animals were. We could tell the direction, but we would have a long, probably fruitless climb through thick underbrush to find any. Red pandas, small raccoon-like creatures, are notoriously elusive, and giant pandas are nearly as hard to come upon.
We climbed to a tent used by the young researchers for night observation. Gauges marked precipitation levels, and our guide carefully took notes - as he had all along the way - of birds sighted and, of course, the condition of various species of bamboo. The giant pandas's habitat was indeed nearly inaccessible, yet beautiful.
Later that day we returned to reserve headquarters. A drive alongside the rushing, rock-filled Pitiao River to the reserve's high pass at Balangshan, 4,487 meters (14,717 feet) above sea-level, showed how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to clear the reserve of its more than 3,000 local inhabitants. This was a main truck and bus route cutting right through the reserve's center. The reserve had built a power station to generate electricity, and houses and a school on its fringes, but residents refused to move.
The third major panda reserve we visited had a reputation as a tourist attraction rather than a serious research center. Jiuzhaigou, covering 600 square kilometers, was established in 1978 and is a fantasy of water landscapes.
Our route there took us past team after team of gold prospectors working the river with huge hoses to dredge the sand, and gracious, fretworked, wooden houses festooned with hanging clusters of corn.
Racks and trees were draped with everything from beans to cabbage to persimmons, all air-drying for winter consumption. Pairs of oxen were plowing the fields. The residents were dressed in traditional costume, the women in gowns of rainbow colors, the men in belted swagger coats, all topped off with flat-brimmed hats and tall, perky feathers.
The attraction of Jiuzhaigou is its abundance of water - broad waterfalls and nearly continuous lakes. Particularly incredible was sight of clumps of trees and shrubs amid the fast-moving waters. The lakes are very clear reflecting mirrors, kaleidoscopes of cobalt blues, emerald greens, and deep purples.
The reserve's managers are entirely engrossed in matters of tourism - from clearing up litter to construction of a Tibetan-style guest house. Managing tourists is, in a way, protecting wildlife. Indeed, there seems to be progress along that line; driving along the roads we encountered large flocks of pheasants that were in no hurry to disperse.
Jiuzhaigou's extraordinary beauty, like that of other once-remote areas, was taken for granted by its inhabitants, who didn't realize its potential for tourism. Only in recent years have such areas been ``discovered'' and marked for development. The Chinese have taken to travel with a vengeance, and Jiuzhaigou has become a must for all semiadventurers.
From Jiuzhaigou, we made our way back to Chengdu, the provincial capital. Our mission was to pay a visit to Mei Mei, champion panda mother, at the Chengdu Zoo. Six of Mei Mei's offspring are still living, and she is such a steady producer that zoo officials now take her cubs away at about seven months so she can give birth every year. (Normally the young leave their mother at about 18 months.)
Mei Mei is one of more than 10 pandas at the zoo. Although they are well taken care of and the zoo's reproduction program is supported by WWF, it is disturbing to see these wild creatures so confined - more so even than at the Wolong research station.
Watching Mei Mei, a smallish female, I noticed her pigeon-toed gait. A zoo panda expert explained that it helped her plow through bamboo thickets as she foraged in the wild.
I was reminded once again of the curious relationship between beast and food source, still a mystery that is tied up in the scientific guessing-game of whether the giant panda is more closely related to the raccoon or the bear. Such things are for scientists to ponder, and the literature on the subject has done little but exacerbate the controversy. Meanwhile, the creature is the focus of intercontinental conservation efforts and one of Sichuan's most precious inhabitants.