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Discovery
Prowling Pandas Become Policy Advisers

Vanessa Hull evaluates the impacts of zoning on pandas in Wolong Nature Reserve in southwestern China

Photo of a panda wearing a GPS collar meandering through the Wolong Nature Reserve

A panda wearing a GPS collar meanders through China's Wolong Nature Reserve.
Credit and Larger Version

December 14, 2011

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.

The 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 (MSU), 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.

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 in this MSU press release or learn more about her research life in Wolong.

--Sue Nichols, Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Michigan State University

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

Investigators
Vanessa Hull
Jianguo Liu

Related Institutions/Organizations
Michigan State University

Locations
Michigan
China

Related Programs
Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems

Related Awards
#0709717 CNH: Effects of Cross-Boundary Processes on Human-Nature Dynamics in Wolong Nature Reserve for Giant Pandas

Total Grants
$1,493,879

Related Websites
Prowling Pandas Become Policy Advisers: http://www.livescience.com/17312-panda-zoning-policy-nsf-bts.html
Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, MSU: http://csis.msu.edu/
Zoning boundaries can make good neighbors in conservation, MSU Press Release: http://csis.msu.edu/news/Conservation_zoning
Evaluating the efficacy of zoning designations for protected area management, Biological Conservation, Dec. 2011: http://go.usa.gov/5Pz
To catch a panda, MSU Newsroom Special Report, March 25, 2010: http://special.news.msu.edu/panda/
In the Face of Extinction: Pandas in Peril, NSF Current, May 2008: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsletter/may_08/index.jsp#faces
Web Surfers Can Follow Researcher as She Seeks to Collar and Study Pandas in Chinese Reserve, NSF Press Release, Dec. 10, 2007: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=110843

Photo of doctoral candidate Vanessa Hull gathering data in the Wolong Nature Reserve, China.
Doctoral candidate Vanessa Hull gathers data in the Wolong Nature Reserve, China.
Credit and Larger Version



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