Beating Around the Forest for Panda Protection in Minshan

Posted on 31 December 2006

The sun crests over the mountain, casting beams through the cold and smoky air and upon the frosted tents scattered around the flaming camp fire. The quiet camp becomes alive again as rangers creep out of their tents.

"Sleep well? Good weather, isn't it?" The yawning people greet each other and gradually gather around the fire, beginning the day with a joking chat and a relatively satisfying breakfast prepared by an early riser. "Better have some more," a ranger reminds his friend kindly. "It will give you more strength to cope with the hours of patrol on the mountain."

This is a typical scene before a WWF-funded joint anti-poaching patrol takes place. With WWF's support for past nine years, patrols involving rangers from adjacent nature reserves have been organized twice a year in the Minshan Mountains in Sichuan Province to mitigate the pressure on the giant panda and general environmental well-being of the reserves caused by the threatening activities such as illegal poaching and herbal collecting. The joint anti-poaching patrol has played an recognized role in improving the reserve protection and management that has proved itself an effective means of better uniting reserve resources to protect wildlife.

An effective resistance

"How to fight against the poaching activity has become one of the major threats facing the protection of panda in Minshan," said Ling Lin, director of WWF-China's Chengdu Office. This office has financially supported the Sichuan provincial administration's anti-poaching patrol since 1997.

Located between Sichuan and Gansu provinces, the Minshan Mountains comprise the world's largest panda habitat with the greatest population of wild pandas. It is also famous for being rich with rare plants and animals as a representative region of biodiversity. This fame and diversity unfortunately has made the area a prime target of poachers. Consequently, species diversity and population have dwindled dramatically in the last several decades.

According to Ling, the bordering areas between different nature reserves have become the areas most seriously affected by poaching due to their remote location and inadequate coverage by the reserve administrations.

"It is like a hide-and-seek game. The poachers will sneak back at night if the rangers patrol there in daytime, or return when the rangers leave," said Ling. "It is hard for the reserves to deal with such situation as each reserve actually are short of people to deploy."
Moreover, the lack of cooperation among nature reserves has undermined the administrative effectiveness. Before WWF's involvement, anti-poaching patrols were implemented separately by different nature reserves in varied times in Minshan. Some poachers escaped punishment by selectively navigating this patchwork of protection. "The rangers patrolling in their reserve were powerless to punish poachers who would run from the reserve to an adjacent one once they spotted the patrol," said Ling. "It used to be big headache for the administration, and, under such circumstance, a joint anti-poaching was thus maneuvered by WWF to counter such dilemma."
In addition to the regular patrols, the joint anti-poaching patrols organized by WWF with involvement of different nature reserves each time have remarkably curbed poaching activities in Minshan area, successfully fostering the establishment of a special anti-poaching body that involves more than 2,000 staff members in the area. The Pingwu County has even set up an anti-poaching office to direct its anti-poaching plan, named Nighthawk, which aims to interrupt the supply chain of poaching, transporting and selling of wild animals. Currently, the joint anti-poaching patrols are carried out twice a year with a duration of two to three days each time in Minshan area, successfully preventing at least 2,000 illegal entries into the nature reserves.

In the latest joint anti-poaching patrol in November 2006, more than 15 people from Sichuan Xuebaoding National Nature Reserve, Sichuan Baiyang Nature Reserve and the Huya Wildlife Protection Station in Pingwu County spent two days patrolling in two mixed teams in both reserves, finding about thirty snares set by poachers along animal paths, and, sadly, a dead goral strangled by a snare. In addition, one of the patrol teams found several intact panda droppings in a bamboo forest at an altitude of more than 2,100 meters in Baiyang Nature Reserve.

According to one of the participating rangers named Xu Chi, the place where these droppings were found is one of the areas frequented by pandas in the reserve. In fact, more panda traces have been observed in the reserve during their patrol in recent years, thanks to the improved protection of the biodiversity and environment. While the anti-poaching patrols have decreased poaching by an estimated 60 per cent, Li Shaosen, a participating ranger from Sichuan Baiyang Nature Reserve, predicted that the poacher may have become more cunning and skillful to capture animals as there is an increasing market for them. Such an effort to fight against poaching is just the beginning of an overall effective protection of the endangered species in the Minshan area.

A hard beat to cover

Unlike most of the excited mountain hikers loaded down with big backpacks, the rangers carry hardly any gear besides the most important things - the warrants. "It is a solemn identification showing that we are acting legally on behalf of the government to patrol and punish any suspect entering the nature reserve without being permitted," said Li.

"We do not have too much posh mountaineering gear, which is actually of little practical help for such outdoor activity in reserves. You could bring a bottle of water with you. But normally we just drink the river water if we get thirsty during patrol," said the 28-year-old in an indifferent tone as if he were talking about something everyone knows. "It is 100 per cent natural mineral water and tastes better than what you drink in cities," he added jokingly.

Rather than testing the quality of your equipment, the patrols determine the answer to one basic question - how much can you walk?

Most of the comforts of modern civilization fade away as the patrol team penetrates deep into the mountains. In the latest anti-poaching patrol in November, it took nearly four hours for the participating rangers to arrive in three cars at the end of the rugged mountain road, from where all people had to get off and walk for another hour along the roaring river to reach the planned camping site. And this is just the prelude.

"We normally leave at about nine o'clock in the morning after breakfast, when the freezing humidity becomes a bit better. The daytime will be spent in action to detect poachers, clear traps and snares and conduct monitoring of pandas and reserve conditions," said Zhao Danglou, a participating forest police officer.

"We kept walking for 11 hours once during a patrol,"he added.

In fact, walking exceptionally long distances is normal for these rangers. According to the patrol and monitoring regulations by Sichuan and Gansu provinces, there are 350 patrol routes totaling 1,500 kilometers set in nature reserves in Minshan. Apart from joint anti-poaching patrols that occur twice a year, rangers will conduct three to four patrols in their own reserves every three months, covering a surprising distance of 6,000 kilometers per person per year on foot.

Moreover, the patrol routes are designed to cover the areas and tracks usually haunted by poachers at high altitude in dense forest. The rangers will track down steep trails and sometimes blaze their own trails when they are obstructed by trees, stones and rivers. Patrolling along these routes is much different from a relaxing hike in the wild as it demands more strength for rangers to race against the poachers. To prevent poaching, the rangers have to be quicker than poachers, before they set the traps or run away.

"It is not that hard for us as we are pretty used to it," said Xu Chi, 26, deputy director of the protection office of Sichuan Xuebaoding National Nature Reserve. Xu has worked in the reserve for six years since he graduated from a forestry institute in Chengdu, Sichuan Province in 2000.

With WWF's support, the rangers are now equipped with modern GPS handsets to record data during patrolling. The apparatuses have helped the rangers to position themselves more precisely than they used to be able to. With their new experience-based maps, they have accumulated more reliable monitoring and patrol data that can be used to improve the panda protection and reserve management. But that is far from being enough.

Another realistic problem is the lack of modern communication tools. The rangers do not have the professional walkie-talkies used by police officers in city during the patrol. Instead, the rangers just maintain contact by staying close, or yelling out vigorously to call each other when out of sight.

"Of course, it would be great if we had the walkie-talkies as mobile phones do not have a signal here in the reserve," said Xu. "But we are short of money to buy them. Anyway, it does not matter too much as we all know the mountain well."

"It is really a hard job. But I think it's OK since I have been here for years and the working condition are getting better," he said. "The future will be better."

A long way to go

The fledging anti-poaching patrol is just a first step toward improving the reserve protection and management, and for all its success, is handicapped by understaffing and lack of substantial funding.

Usually, a nature reserve is staffed with fewer than 10 people, one fourth of whom are capable of working in the wild. In addition, most people have little knowledge and training in wildlife protection and how to work professionally in a reserve as the recruitment is traditionally from redeployed government employees and retired army soldiers. It is only in recent years that college graduates like Xu have been hired.

As a longtime partner with the local governments on the protection of nature reserves, WWF has supported the reserves in improving their management by offering trainings to the staffs on how to conduct the monitoring and patrol. In addition, WWF has bought GPS handsets and infrared cameras for nature reserves to help them better trace the giant pandas, followed by the introduction and involvement of the joint anti-poaching patrol.

"WWF has really done a lot for us and the reserve to help promote the awareness of environmental protection and the popular recognition of reserves," said Li. "The embarrassing situation of reserves has begun to be known by the outside as nature reserves are attracting more attention from both the society and the government."

According to Li, the public attention will usually focus on the nature reserves of higher recognition or status, which means that getting more funding would be possible with better publicity. With a limited amount of funding from the government each year, there has been an unspoken competition among nature reserves to win more favor and support from the government.

"The different status between national and provincial nature reserves determines how much money one can get from the government," said Li. "Definitely, the national reserves will enjoy more financial support than those provincial ones."

"But generally speaking, the situation for all reserves has improved a lot in recent years as the country has started to pay more attention to environmental protection," he added.

As a staff member with the Sichuan Baiyang Provincial Nature Reserve, the 28-year-old admitted the treatment difference, although his passion for the ranger job is not diminished. "People in cities can hardly understand and bear a job like this. But to tell you the truth, I didn't realize that I would love the job until I was shifted to the reserve after I had dawdled in different departments of the county government," he said.

The average salary for rangers in reserves in Minshan is about 800 yuan (US$ 100) per month. Although incomparable to cities, it is "higher than previously and enough to maintain a normal life in the county."

"Money is surely important but more important is the public awareness about environmental protection. The growing support from the government and society to the protection of wildlife is a good signal. I think it will be better and, personally, I'd like to be working here as a ranger as long as I can."