All text and images are from the publication
Giant Pandas in the Wild: Saving an Endangered Species. ©2002 Aperture Foundation Inc.
As the snowy trail zigzagged into the forest, I saw tracks made by a shrew; signs of a takin, an oxlike creature; and, finally, panda feces and a few footprints in the snow. That evening in camp, I wrote in my notebook: “My dream has come true.” It was 1985 and I was 19 years old, in my last year of undergraduate study in biology at Peking University. In this reserve in the Qinling Mountains of southwestern China, I was starting what was to become my life’s work: the study of pandas in the wild.
At the time, no one knew much about pandas, including what the bears need to survive or even how they breed. Conservation was still new in China. Concern had been raised because a massive die-off of arrow bamboo, a normal event in the plant’s reproductive cycle that occurs just once every 70 to 100 years, prompted fears that the wild panda population would starve to death. The Chinese government decided to capture as many wild pandas as possible and place them in rescue centers built throughout the animal’s habitat, in Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi provinces.
Nonetheless, pandas had not fared well in captivity. Of 304 pandas in zoos in 1985, only 76 had been born in captivity and all but 19 had died within a month. Some scientists speculated that a physiological defect contributed to the species’ dying out. Although zookeepers knew that pandas were as tough, aggressive, and dangerous as grizzly bears, the public image was that of an adorable, cuddly creature that was weak and vulnerable. Dramatic news reports deepened the impression that pandas in the wild were doomed.
We hoped that studies of pandas in the Qinling Mountains would clarify the situation. In the mid-1980s, this region had possibly the highest density of wild pandas in all of China—feces and other signs of bamboo consumption could be seen everywhere—but observing the animals themselves seemed impossible. In order to track and observe the bears, we realized that we would have to put radio collars on them—a job that requires the skills of a hunter, a veterinarian, and a biologist.
At first we set up wooden cages baited with roast mutton, but we had little luck. What we really needed was a good tranquilizer gun. But at a price of $2,000—the equivalent of my five-year stipend and my colleague Pan Wenshi’s two-year salary combined—that was out of the question. Fortunately, a group of zoo directors who heard of our need donated a gun in 1988. From 1989 to 1993, we were able to place radio collars on three to five pandas each year, allowing us to track a population of about 20 animals on a daily basis.
Each month we spent five days and nights monitoring the animals’ activities around the clock. As we came to know them better, we gave each panda a name, usually one that reflected its physical features, such as Daxion (Big Man), Dahuo (Big Broken Nose), and Jiao Jiao (Double Charm). Most ran away when we tried to draw near. I was charged twice, though, and each time I tried to stay calm and motionless. In both cases, the animals retreated. Some pandas were bolder, like Jiao Jiao, who allowed us to be present, but at a distance, while she was eating and sleeping. We came to regard Jiao Jiao as our star. She provided invaluable information on her species’ social life and mating habits.