CSIS researcher returns to earthquake-shaken region to study giant pandas

Nov. 10, 2008

CSIS doctoral student Vanessa Hull returns to China this week in her quest to capture endangered giant pandas and affix tracking collars. She will find a much-changed environment since she departed last March.

A devastating earthquake May 12 killed approximately 70,000 people, including many at the Wolong Nature Reserve where panda researchers are based. The quake was centered less than 20 miles from the reserve, which spans nearly 500,000 acres of mountainous terrain in Sichuan province.

There are thought to be between 1,000 and 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild, and Hull last year spent more than three months attempting to capture some, fit them with GPS (global positioning system) collars.

“We’re trying to find ways to conserve these animals and provide habitat for them because in areas where they live, humans are encroaching on their habitat and they don’t have a lot of space left,” Hull explained. “So we’re trying to figure out what type of habitat they like, what they do, how much space do they use, how do they use the space they’re in – and it’s hard to get that information when you’re not following individual animals in a way that a GPS collar would allow you to.”

The slow but wily beasts didn’t cooperate the last time, despite leaving signs that they came tantalizingly close. Hull and her local team will employ new tactics this time, including trying to better mask their own scent.

They might also get a head start by collaring a panda captured recently in a nearby village, prior to its release back into the wild. The collars collect data on the pandas’ movements for remote downloading, and are designed to automatically unlatch after a prescribed period.

The May earthquake caused a landslide that that killed more than three dozen residents of the reserve, said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, who leads MSU's Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. Some reserve staff also died. “You have no place to hide, basically. The valley is so narrow, you have no way to get out,” he said.

The landslides also wiped out stands of bamboo, he said, which is pandas’ food of choice. Wild pandas might also have been killed, in addition to a captive female whose Wolong Reserve breeding center pen was crushed.

MSU graduate students Wei Liu and Mao-Ning Tuan Mufrom both were present when the temblor struck and assisted in rescue efforts and assessing damage, Jack Liu said. A half-dozen students, plus other faculty and collaborators, currently conduct research in China for the 14-year-old MSU program Jack Liu heads.

Hull will be the only MSU researcher at the reserve this time, but will continue to work with a number of local collaborators during her three-plus months there.

Jack Liu visited the area in September, and said aftershocks are still being felt.

Displaced residents continue to live in temporary housing and a three-hour trip to the area now takes 11 because of road blockages, Jack Liu said. The research center where Hull might again live – an hour’s hike from Shawan, the nearest town – is still without electricity.

A native of Branford, Conn., 26-year-old Hull came to MSU in 2004 to work with Jack Liu and is basing her doctoral dissertation on the panda tracking project. She is a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow and an MSU University Distinguished Fellow.

She again will post updates on her work, when conditions permit, on the panda project’s MSU Special Report Web site: http://special.news.msu.edu/panda/index.php.


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