MSU panda team supporting recovery in Wolong

May 15, 2008

Michigan State University has partnered for years with the world’s epicenter of giant panda research and preservation, and now is continuing as the area in China struggles to recover from the devastating earthquake.

While communications to the Wolong Nature Reserve remain severely challenged and information sparse, Jianguo “Jack” Liu, leader of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, has confirmed that the three graduate students who work on his projects have survived the earthquake and are helping with rescue efforts.

MSU’s panda research team has established a fund to assist the people who live alongside the giant pandas and other valuable species in the reserve. This is the area in which doctoral student Vanessa Hull lived in and blogged this winter as she attempted to trap and collar the elusive pandas. Her work, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA, and her perspectives on life in Wolong were followed by people all over the world.

So far, Jack Liu only has managed a one-sentence satellite phone call from the Wolong Nature Reserve, the epicenter of the earthquake, where two graduate students – Wei Liu and Mao-Ning Tuan Mu – are working.

The place they were staying suffered some damage, so the students are now staying in a tent. They have been helping in rescue efforts, such as connecting the satellite phone system and assisting in helicopter landings.

There are reports that several dozen farmers in the reserve have died or have been injured. Numerous houses in Wolong have been destroyed. So far, there are no reported deaths among the reserve staff, Jack Liu said.

A third student, Yu “Chris” Li, is in Chengdu, and Jack Liu received word he also had escaped harm.

“I am not sure how our collaborators and their families are doing in Wolong,” Jack Liu said. “Because of the aftershocks, I am still very concerned about the safety of our students and collaborators there.”

Even before the May 12 earthquake, Jack Liu’s lab had established a fund to enable those interested in the understanding and preservation of giant panda habitat to help the area. That fund now has been expanded to allow people to help both earthquake victims and the area. It’s called HELP PANDA – Health and Education for Local People in Protected Areas and Destitute Areas.

Hull is one of the HELP PANDA founders. She returned in March without capturing pandas, but with a tremendous amount of data on life in the mountains. Tracking a panda means understanding how they interact with their mountainous environment, and how their fragile habitat is affected by humans.

Even as Jack Liu spends most of his time working to learn more of the fate of those in Wolong, he can’t help but wonder about scientific implications of the earthquake.

“This earthquake has made me speculate on why the pandas had disappeared from the region where Vanessa tried to catch them,” he said. “There were many pandas in the region the year before. Perhaps pandas could sense an upcoming earthquake and left the area?”


Sue Nichols
Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability
(517) 432-0206