Longxi-Hongkou National Nature Reserve: Protecting a Perfect Species
The three-day 2019 New Year holiday differed considerably from previous years for monitoring personnel at the Longxi-Hongkou National Nature Reserve in Dujiangyan City, Sichuan Province. Unlike most Chinese who celebrated the holiday with their families and friends, monitoring personnel stationed there spent the holiday in the wild in heavy snow. They were tracking and monitoring Qinxin and Xiaohetao (Little Walnut), two giant pandas they recently released into the reserve.
Qinxin and Xiaohetao
Qinxin and Xiaohetao are two female giant pandas born in 2016. Having been prepared for release since their birth, the captive-born pair received two years of systematic wilderness training at the Sichuan-based Wolong National Nature Reserve. On December 27, 2018, the two mammals were released into the Longxi-Hongkou reserve. Before their release, the two giant pandas received careful physical examinations, which showed that their growth and various physical indicators were healthy. Qinxin weighed 64 kilograms and measured 117 centimeters. Xiaohetao weighed 62 kilograms, with a length of 99 centimeters.
After the pair were released, a monitoring team composed of researchers from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda and the Longxi-Hongkou reserve immediately began tracking and monitoring them. The monitoring team is big, consisting of four experts from the conservation and research center, eight full-time monitoring personnel from the reserve, and six mobile field investigators.
The application of multiple devices and methods, including radio monitoring, GPS collar data download and analysis, feces sample collection, surveys of living and food-collecting environment, and infrared camera monitoring, enables researchers to track the movement of the two pandas at any time. By collecting data and conducting field research, the monitoring team hopes to determine whether Qinxin and Xiaohetao can gradually adapt to the wild and integrate into the wild giant panda population and more importantly why or why not.
Qinxin and Xiaohetao are not the first giant pandas to be released into the Longxi-Hongkou reserve. On July 16, 2005, a wild giant panda managed to wander into the downtown area of Dujiangyan City. After receiving medical treatment, the panda, which was named “Shenglin (Forestry Prosperity) No. 1,” was released into the reserve on August 8, 2005.
“Our reserve is located in the middle of a narrow curved belt of the modern natural distribution area for giant pandas,” notes Jiang Lili, vice head of Longxi-Hongkou National Nature Reserve Administration. “It connects the two largest wild panda habitats in the Minshan and Qionglai mountain systems, so it serves as a natural corridor for living and reproduction of wild pandas, making it ideal for reintroducing captive-bred giant pandas to the wild.”
Maintaining Genetic Diversity
Located in Dujiangyan City, the Longxi-Hongkou reserve boasts a total area of 310 square kilometers, with a core area of 203 square kilometers, a buffer area of 37 square kilometers, and an experimental area of 70 square kilometers. It was established in 1997 with the approval of China’s State Council. Alongside giant pandas, protecting other endangered and threatened wildlife in the area such as snub-nosed monkeys and takins, as well as the reserve’s forest ecosystem, is the primary goal. With complex natural conditions, a unique climate, and an elevation spanning from 1,200 to more than 4,500 meters, the nature reserve preserves a primitive alpine valley natural ecosystem and a complete vegetation vertical spectrum boasting rich biodiversity.
Such abundant animal and plant resources call upon the giant panda to fully play the role of umbrella species. However, according to the results of China’s Fourth National Giant Panda Survey released in early 2015, only nine giant pandas were living in the reserve, which means if the population does not expand, the species in the reserve will face the risk of inbreeding.
For this reason, the Longxi-Hongkou reserve enthusiastically welcomes the release of captive giant pandas into the wild. Studies show that over the next 40 years, if a female giant panda can be released into the wild every year, the regional genetic diversity for giant pandas in the Longxi-Hongkou reserve can be maintained at 90 percent, and the extinction probability will drop to less than two percent. If two giant pandas are released into the wild every year, the same standard can be reached in less than 20 years.
“Releasing Qinxin and Xiaohetao was a decision carefully made by our reserve and experts,” says Jiang. Like other animals, wars for mating rights exist among wild giant panda populations. According to the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, adult male giant pandas often fight for territories and spouses. Thus, wild giant pandas overwhelmingly welcome new females more readily than males. The release of female giant pandas Qinxin and Xiaohetao was conducive to their healthier and quicker integration into the wild population.
“Visible” and “Invisible” Protection
To better protect the habitat of giant pandas and conduct scientific research and monitoring, the reserve carries out both regular patrols and specific monitoring programs. Each year, specific protection campaigns featuring armed patrols are launched in key areas and during important time ranges, targeting activities such as poaching, illegal logging, illegal herb collection and unlicensed fires, all of which harm forest resources. Staffers regularly check to see if any facilities or equipment are threatening wildlife and remove them if needed.
Protection of the giant panda is, of course, beneficial not only to the species itself, but also to other animals and plants in the reserve. A recent example was the discovery of Magnolia dawsoniana Rehd. et Wils, a magnolia species with an extremely small population, in the Longxi-Hongkou reserve. Neighbors such as these make the giant panda seem like a perfect species. It can attract public attention to the protected area as a flagship species and thus protect the many other species that make up the ecological community of its habitat as an umbrella species, driving maintenance of the integrity of the entire regional ecosystem.
During each patrol, field personnel perform an additional task: They check infrared cameras installed in the protected area. Every one to two months, they collect data and maintain the cameras. With the help of the equipment, researchers can better interpret the activity patterns of giant pandas and many other rare species in the reserve.
In addition to “visible” protective action, the Longxi-Hongkou reserve also attaches great importance to “invisible” protective measures such as various green development campaigns and publicity activities with giant panda protection at the core. Alongside activities directly related to giant pandas, campaigns also cover forest fire prevention, bird protection and forest waste cleaning. Furthermore, the reserve created a science popularization brand “Giant Panda Class” featuring two teams of lecturers and volunteers totaling 219 people. A total of 12 volunteer service bases were set up to publicize knowledge on giant pandas and enhance public awareness on environmental protection.
Jiang Lili hopes that the Longxi-Hongkou reserve will continue its lead role in this regard. “In the long run, only public environmental protection awareness can provide lasting momentum for giant panda protection,” stresses Jiang.