Located in northwestern Sichuan Basin, Pingwu County is home to the Wanglang National Nature Reserve, one of the earliest protected areas for wild giant pandas in China. Statistics show that of the nearly 6,000 square kilometers of land in Pingwu, about half serves as the habitat for giant pandas. A total of 335 wild giant pandas live there, accounting for 18 percent of the total number in China.
Previous Worries for Panda County
Known as the “No.1 county for giant pandas under heaven,” Pingwu, with a population of 186,000, was once a national poverty-stricken county. For many rural residents of Pingwu, collecting wild Chinese medicinal herbs was an important source of income.
Xu Qiang, giant panda project director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), recounted that a decade ago, local villagers would trek deep into protected areas for giant pandas to collect medicinal herbs, cut down trees, pitch tents, make fires and sometimes even hunt. These activities were damaging the panda habitat and creating headaches for local forestry workers.
Xu joined WWF in 2008 and soon began participating in protecting giant panda habitats in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. Xu and his colleagues aimed to help residents of Pingwu gain economic benefits while protecting the local ecological environment by changing the practice of collecting wild medicinal herbs in the giant panda habitat. A plant called Scarlet Kadsura caught their attention.
Scarlet Kadsura is a common medicinal herb in China. It is widely distributed in marginal areas close to giant panda habitats. The plant is believed to effectively treat diarrhea, asthma, night sweats and coughing.
Xu determined that collecting wild Scarlet Kadsura presented low risk and benefited a wide range of people. “The effective constituent of the plant is in its fruit,” Xu notes. “Picking it doesn’t necessarily destroy rhizomes and in a way, it is sustainable. The villagers don’t need to enter the protected areas for giant pandas to collect the herb. And collecting it doesn’t require much physical strength, which means the elderly, women and even students on vacation can participate.”
Harmonious Coexistence of Humans and Pandas
After communicating with the local government of Pingwu County, Xu Qiang received positive feedback and support. In 2009, a sustainable project promoting picking Scarlet Kadsura was first launched in Shuijing Town. Xu chose Daping Village as the first stop. WWF invited teachers from Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and U.S. companies to train villagers with professional skills and teach the standardized picking process.
“We trained villagers either in the field or in a large yard in the village or sometimes just took a few steps into the forest to demonstrate how to pick,” Xu illustrates. “We made small brochures the size of a lighter so villagers could easily carry one with them.”
“In the past, the villagers began to collect Scarlet Kadsura as early as late July, and underripe fruit was also collected due to vicious competition,” says Xu. “In fact, the effective ingredient in Scarlet Kadsura doesn’t maximize until September. Furthermore, in order to work faster, villagers sometimes cut the entire branch off or even fell the whole tree, which hurt the forest severely. Our training stresses to pick only the fruit and not to hurt the rhizome and branches that it depends on to grow. And fruits on a single tree cannot be fully harvested all at once—20 percent should be left both for the plant’s own renewal and for other animals in the forest to eat.”
After training, once simple and rough processing of Scarlet Kadsura has improved. When drying out Scarlet Kadsura, villagers no longer use the boiling method for speed, which would cause a loss in effective ingredients. And for villagers who dried Scarlet Kadsura on their own floors, they supplied clean rolled mats to reduce accumulation of sand and other debris.
In Xu’s view, it is important to encourage villagers’ autonomy. Xu and his colleagues helped each village participating in the project establish a “sustainable management team on medicinal plants” usually composed of three villagers. All Scarlet Kadsura pickers started registering with them, and a trace card system was established to record information about pickers, picking times and areas.
How to ensure the sale of high-quality Scarlet Kadsura? The Shuijing Herbal Medicine Planting Cooperative, responsible for acquiring Scarlet Kadsura, was set up in October 2008. The cooperative only purchases Scarlet Kadsura that has been approved by the management teams of local villages to ensure it meets international standards for sustainable collection of medicinal plants, and then it sells the product to WWF’s two U.S. partners—Draco Natural Products and Traditional Medicinals. Scarlet Kadsura fruits are processed and purified before being made into natural products such as herbal tea and sold to consumers in North America.
When the project first started, Xu was puzzled to hear that American manufacturers were finding pesticide residue exceeding standards in testing. “How could Scarlet Kadsura grown in the wild exceed the standards?” He then visited the source village and discovered that the problem was “packaging”: Villagers were using old pesticide bags to package Scarlet Kadsura. Then, the villagers were provided with recyclable woven bags customized by the cooperative, which solved the problem completely.
The project ended in 2012. By then, 10 villages in Shuijing Town had participated. Over the past few years, the sustainable harvesting of Scarlet Kadsura has continued to become more industrialized by locals. Now, more than 20 villages in Shuijing Town and surrounding areas are involved. The annual output of Scarlet Kadsura has reached 26 tons.
“Although the project is over, we are still checking on their progress,” grins Xu. “The project has been very successful. Now every picker can earn about 2,000 to 5,000 yuan (around US$298 to 742) per year.” In October 2018, Scarlet Kadsura produced in Shuijing Town of Pingwu County became the first product to receive “Panda Friendly Certification” from WWF. Xu hopes that the certification will inspire more sustainable ecological products to help facilitate harmonious coexistence of humans and pandas.