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Prowling Pandas Become Policy Advisers
A panda wearing a GPS collar meanders through the Wolong Nature Reserve, providing data on how pandas interact with human activities.
Credit: Vanessa Hull, Michigan State University

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

The comings and goings of a pair of girls are helping breathe some life into a zoning policy that's aiming to protect the Chinese environment.

Those girls — Mei-Mei and Pan-Pan — are pandas outfitted with GPS collars. Vanessa Hull, a doctoral student from the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University, is using the movement of collared pandas to understand the effectiveness of zoning in the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwestern China.

Wolong, like many nature reserves across the globe, is home to both animals and people. Increasingly, governments are turning to zoning ordinances to protect habitats while still allowing people access to a livelihood. People in Wolong historically have farmed, chopped down trees for fuel and construction, kept livestock, and accommodated the tourists who stream in to see the beloved pandas in breeding centers.

Vanessa Hull, a doctoral candidate in the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University, gathering data in the Wolong Nature Reserve in China's Sichuan Province.
Vanessa Hull, a doctoral candidate in the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University, gathering data in the Wolong Nature Reserve in China's Sichuan Province.
Credit: Vanessa Hull, Michigan State University

Hull has spent years periodically living in the Wolong Nature Reserve to understand the delicate balance between pandas and the people who live amongst them.

Wolong has been zoned into three areas. The "core" area strictly limits human activity to reduce human impact on pandas in the wild. The "experimental" area thrives with homes, businesses and roads. In between is a "buffer zone" of limited human access that is intended to acknowledge that it's hard to declare a forest pristine if a hotel is right next door.

The result is a way to understand policy and provide a novel look that goes beyond theory. Hull has shown that zoning in Wolong is protecting some, but not all prime panda real estate. The study also is helping to show where improvements are needed. These improvements include the following:

  • Much of the buffer zone is important for pandas. Some 54 percent of land that is highly suitable for pandas in Wolong lies outside the protected core zone. Data showing Pan-Pan and Mei-Mei wandering frequently out of the core zone left no doubt that pandas don't read zoning ordinances.
  • The rules of the buffer zone are ambiguous, making it susceptible for a buffer area to become a place of commerce and development. Without clear rules, land use managers can't rely on clear guidelines when fielding requests for variances.
  • Even small instances of disregard for zoning ordinances — especially in the case of roaming livestock — can have significant effects on panda habitat. Hull said it's becoming clear that a few small herds of cattle or horses can decimate large swaths of a panda's feeding ground. Communicating zoning rules is a challenge, and a lack of enforcement compounds problems.

"We're showing that you should have zoning in your toolbox to conserve habitat, but it shouldn't be the only tool you have," said Hull. "It needs to be paired with other policies when it comes to human behavior. We know that it is crucial to work directly with people and provide benefits to people to preserve habitat."

You can read more about Hull's recently published paper on zoning or learn more about her research life in Wolong.

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in Behind the Scenes articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Behind the Scenes Archive.