Mountain in recovery - Qingmuchuan’s first monitoring patrol since the May 12th earthquakeText / Photo by Chen Xu
Six months have passed since the devastating May 12th earthquake struck western China’s Sichuan Province. Though there are still aftershocks, locals are trying to break away from horrible memories and stagger back into a normal daily life. And so, it seems, is the wildlife. The Qingmuchuan Nature Reserve is the only corridor for giant pandas between the Qinling and Minshan mountains, but Qinling Mountain also hit hard by the quake. How is the reconstruction work going? And how much has been restored naturally? We are keeping our eyes on how this area of rich biodiversity—for both humans and wildlife like the giant panda—recovers from this catastrophe.
With support from WWF, I visited Qingmuchuan Nature Reserve at Ningqiang County of Shaanxi Province in October 2008 in hope of finding answers.
Most houses collapsedQingmuchuan Nature Reserve is surrounded by a few small settlements. On the morning of Oct. 11th, I traveled to the town of Qingmuchuan with staff from the nature reserve. Making good time, we stopped at a bridge to take in the surroundings. Rising all around us were rough green-ridged mountains with the grey tips of small houses peaking out of the foliage at their base—a perfectly hushed, pastoral
picture. But only a few hundred meters away sat a group of ramshackle tents, other small structures, and the ruins of mud houses that reminded me of the horrible effects of the earthquake. It’s far from over. People are still trying to recover from the damage. The Yuquanba Protection Station office, for example, collapsed in the quake and staff has since worked out of small makeshift offices. They say it’s better than working in tents.
We started out again. It didn’t take us long to reach Qingmuchuan, and one of the first things I noticed were the spider webs of cracks crawling over the remaining buildings. For safety, all houses have tents out front. And for those without houses, earthquake shelter tents are the only choice.
We arrived at our destination. I saw another small temporary structure functioning as the Qingmuchuan Protection Station. Around the area were a group of tents that differed from the others—chance had it that they were donated by WWF. Villagers say the tents have helped a lot over the past few months.
Village One at Changshaba is in the core area of the nature reserve. It is also in total disrepair. There are around 50 families living there, but most able-bodied youth have left to find work after much of their farmland was returned to forestry. Other villagers are working hard on the limited remaining land, raising pigs and planting mushrooms to supplement their incomes. Even this meager amount of farming hasn’t been easy: the earthquake tore a 1km long cleft in the mountain. If a strong aftershock where to hit the area, it’s likely the entire mountain would collapse and the village reduced to rubble. The government is pushing to relocate the village: many local residents will leave their mountain homes soon.
Although many wood and mud houses survived, their roofs simply weren’t strong enough to handle the torrential rainstorms that came later. With their houses destroyed, villagers moved to tents at the foot of the mountain and waited for relief housing to arrive. Most of their possessions were lost and their homes reduced to little more than small sheds covered in branches and couch grass.
I watched as Shen Zuorui did her homework on a stone slab. She is nine, and lives in Village Two at Changshaba with her four family members. When asked where her home is, she pointed to a shed and the tilted house behind; tears welled up in her eyes. Her father told me she was in Grade Three at Qingmuchuan Primary School, about 10km from her home. And with the last mushroom harvest just around the corner, the government-led relocation plan would go into full swing. At the foot of the mountain, the government offered 70 square meter temporary prefab housing to each family. “We have to manage living in such a space while we wait for a chance to build a new house. The winter is coming, and we will freeze to death if we continue to live in a shed. Anyway, it’s not safe to live here anymore,” said a local man.
But not all of the materials needed to complete the prefab housing were available. They could do nothing but wait.
Fenlinba Village is in the core area of the Qingmuchuan Reserve. Few houses are left standing and no single family was lucky enough to escape the damage the earthquake caused. Those unwilling to leave stayed in the tents provided by WWF, while many of the area’s youth moved out of the mountain. Many elderly residents say that in November, the whole village will be relocated, leaving their land to the nature reserve. Only Fenlinba Protection Station will stay.
I asked them how they would make a living in the future: “maybe the young men can go out as migrant workers, and the elderly and children just stay behind,” one resident suggested.
Fenlinba Protection Station didn’t survive. The earthquake shook the structure to the ground, with one large rock smashing though the upper portion of Wei Shunqiang’s bunk.
“I was so lucky!” he noted. “If I had been taking a nap or if the earthquake happened at night, I would have been killed by that rock.”
With much of their routine work shaken to pieces, the staff at Fenlinba moved into tents while waiting for construction to finish.
The area also has a large number of beehives. Many were made of logs and covered by huge pieces of slate to stop rainwater from leaking in. Such rough methods of keeping bees are somehow incredible--but these are the living conditions of the communities on the nature reserve.
The area is mired in poverty, with the damage forcing some 727 villagers to move. Though given some government allowance, each new house on the Qingmuchuan Reserve would take on a huge debt load. But relocating will increase overall community living standards and help restore the area’s natural balance. Protection and management on the nature reserve, however, will fall entirely on the shoulders of its staff. The villagers from Changshanba and Fenlinba have been helping with protection and volunteer work over the past few years. The quake has pushed most villagers into poverty, which means locals might be forced to use protected mountain resources to make ends meet. WWF Xian Office and Qingmuchuan Nature Reserve have adjusted work plans to deal with potential threats.
WWF has plans to launch community development projects on the reserve. The earthquake damaged many homes, and the aftershocks stopped beekeeping as well as tea planting and some local tourism. The change from protection to development at Qingmuchuan has pushed reserve staff to move projects to new areas within the reserve. Using government policies as guidance and assistance from WWF, local residents will be able to start over again in new settlements. With new guarantees being made for their livelihoods, the reserve’s residents will find the mountains a less attractive source of income.
Monitoring and patrolling of the panda’s habitat at Qingmuchuan started again in October. Conducted by WWF and its partners, patrols are slowly but surely getting back to normal after the earthquake.
Signs of Wildlife
WWF-supported giant panda monitoring and patrolling on Qinling Mountain, including the Qingmuchuan Nature reserve started in 2005. Through regular field data collection, special monitoring and protection regulations were established to protect giant pandas and their habitats. The restart of monitoring is an important foothold in future plans for reconstruction.
The recommencement of monitoring is a monumental event for the reserve. It means, in part, that the reserve has overcome some of the difficulties that go along with post-earthquake conservation work. It also shows that they’ve gained an opportunity to start the field surveys necessary to monitor the changes affecting habitats and the surrounding communities.
There are 5 routes for monitoring and patrolling on the Qingmuchuan Reserve. I was sent out with a group patrolling 3 of them, while others took on the remaining 2.
I left in the early afternoon on Oct.11th with reserve staffers Dang Xiaowei and Mo Chenqing for Fenlinba. Starting at Changshaba Village at the core of the reserve, passing Xietaishan village, and then down a ridge to the village of Xiaojiawan and on to Fenlinba would take about 5 or 6 hours. We planned to stay there for the night and cover the remaining 2 routes over the next few days.
We left Changshaba, and after 2 hours of walking we reached our first stop on the monitoring route: a patch of farmland that has been returned to forest. I noticed some newly planted saplings and several horses wandering around the area. Horses are the only transportation villagers’ have in the mountains.
There was a clear boundary between the forest and what used to be farmland, and I heard the gentle trickle of a stream. Dang Xiaowei told me that we’d reached the beginning of the monitoring route. Sitting on a rock, Dang and Mo Chenqing took out their GPS units and began to write a journal entry.
Monitoring notes and position recorded, we stepped into the forest and covered a leaf-covered and weedy path. Here we saw more signs of the quake: a deep groove was stamped in the earth where a massive boulder had fallen. Piles of smashed stones sharply contrasted to the luxuriant green that infused the area. I tried to find more evidence of the earthquake, but Mo Chenqing said mud and weeds had covered a lot of damage after the rainy season and that the vegetation hid most of the danger.
Because of rain a few days before, the forest air was humid. Mushrooms were craning in the grass near the path, where we could see hoof prints. Mo Chenqing said it was a wild boar. We also found some prints made by the boar’s nose.
Almost out of nowhere, we heard the angry squeal of an adult boar. Probably frightened by our approach, the squealing, snorting boar was protecting its food.
It was harvest season. There were ripe wild nuts and grains all over the mountain. Acorns and chestnuts are the favorite of both boars and black bears. We stopped again to listen and heard the distinct sound of another boar grunting angrily around 20 meters away. Mo Chenqing suddenly leaped for a tree, shouting: “Come up, quickly! The boar is coming!” Safe in the tree, we quickly lost track of the boar even though we kept a close watch on the underbrush. We descended and the forest fell into silence: We could hear nothing but the crunch of leaves under our feet.
Later, at around 1,389 meters, we found traces of a black bear. The braches of a chestnut tree had been torn down and made into a shelter by one of the animals--chestnut shells were scattered all over the ground. The tree above was completely bare, and in another area nearby we found more chestnut shells. The sharp squeak of a rock squirrel flashed out, protesting the noise we made. Somewhere nearby a black bear could have been vigilantly watching us moving in its territory.
At 1,692 meters we saw more telltale signs of the earthquake. Broken rocks lay under a cliff, but above we found traces and fresh takin droppings. Later we heard takins braying in the distance: they might have been calling their companions to spend the night together. The woods were too dense to see any of them, however. At the very least, the animals were alive and will continue to survive in the recovering landscape.
The route we took on the morning of October 12th was first of the five designated paths. It started at Fenlinba Protection Station and continued to Majiashan, looping around after reaching an altitude of 1,800 meters. The other group would also reach Fenlinba in the evening and we would spend the night together. The next morning we would again start out on two different routes and finally meet at Qingmuchuan when we completed the circuit.
Mo Chenqing and Wei Shuqiang left at dawn, taking a machete with them to hack a path through the bush. There were no villages along the way where Mo and Wei could pick up supplies, so they had to return to Fenlinba before dark. Dang Xiaowei accompanied me on a visit to a community in the area.
Mo and Wei returned safely from their trek. I glanced at their journals: “found a living sambar at 1,224 meters; trace of takin at 1,238 meters; trace of boar at 1,252 meters; found traces of hog badger at 1,397 meters; traces of black bears at 1,488 meters; golden monkeys at 1,801 meters, with shoots and bark under trees; found a large area of arrow bamboo that had grown to 2 or 3 meters; no trace of giant pandas.” A pity they didn’t find any evidence of giant pandas, especially since we are in the only corridor between Qinling and Minshan. Where were the pandas?
The other monitoring group was made up of three members: Liu Tao, Su Ning and Pang Shihua. They also made it to Fenlinba before nightfall on the 12th. I checked their monitoring journals, finding few records of living animals but rich evidence of vegetation, especially arbor.
Both groups started out from Fenlinba on the morning of the 13th, taking two different routes. I followed Wei Shuqiang and Dang Xiaowei on the second route, walking along the old path between Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces until we reached the boarder, then took the ridge and followed a stream back to Fenlinba. After that we hurried to Qingmuchuan to meet the other group and wrap up the monitoring.
There used to be a lot of people living along the route; all that remains now are basic dwellings and pear trees. We were trudging through the autumn sunshine, but found it was too late when we finally got to the pear trees. The pears on the first tree were small. They didn’t taste bad, don’t get me wrong, but there wasn’t much fruit on them. Some boar droppings were under the tree. Wei Shuqiang said there might still be trees with big juicy sweet pears out front. Disappointment struck as soon as we got there: the pear tree was too big to climb. There were a few deep scratches left by black bears on the trunk, with a pile of discarded branches at the base. As we searched for more evidence of the bear, we noticed the situation was even worse than we had originally anticipated: Boars had eaten up every pear on the ground. We moved on in hope of finding more, but quickly discovered that Golden monkeys, macaque and black bears had already eaten almost all of the fruit. We could do nothing with the pears on the tree but watch and sigh. Staring at what was left of the fruit under the trees, Wei Shuqiang sighed: “Poor humans! We can only pick pears like boars do.”
When reaching 1,790 meters on the second route, we saw some oak braches shaking wildly. Taking it as golden monkeys, we rushed there excitedly. To our astonishment we didn’t see any monkey, but instead the fresh paw prints of a black bear on the trunk. We were totally shocked! We could be in a lot of danger if the bear were nearby.
Later we saw a path made by takin at 1,800 meters above sea level. It was zigzagging along the mountain ridge, sometimes going though the bamboo and sometimes the bush below the arbor. We had to crouch and endure branches whipping every part of our bodies. The smell of fresh takin urine was in the air. Then we saw takin hoof prints in mud, both big and small, walking together. They could be watching us somewhere in the deep forest, but we could not see anything.
As we started back I saw a porcupine quill. It was thrust deeply into the mud, probably after being shot at a predator. I picked it up and wiped off the dust. Judging from its length and strength, I could tell it was from a healthy adult, so I kept the quill and brought it back home with me. The dense woods of Qingmuchuan still appear to be full of wildlife.
The monitoring routes that start at Fenlinba border Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Walking along an old path between Shaanxi and Gansu, the scenery is beautiful and offers few hints that a devastating earthquake recently shook the area. The golden-hued woods above 1,600 meters shone vibrantly against a blue sky; streams lapped against lichen covered rocks and plump wild gooseberry hung for one last moment before falling off the branch. But if you looked a little closer, traces of the destruction that scarred the area only six months ago weren’t hard to spot.
The first major threat to Qingmuchuan Nature Reserve was damaged bamboo, the giant pandas’ main source of food.
The reserve’ management bureau says 4 strong aftershocks hit Qingmuchuan after May 12th, happening on May 25, May 27, August 1 and September 12 Mud-rock flows and rock falls soon began to seriously damage the reserve’s bamboo groves, with large areas of the woody perennial evergreen dying. Giant pandas were then left with little to eat.
On the second monitoring route, we saw a huge area of bamboo blooming, while other tracks had already flowered and died. More still has dried up, with only stems left as a reminder. Walking along the mountain ridge we could see a prominent border between old and new bamboo growths. Dang Xiaowei told me the area represented only a small part of the endangered bamboo in the nature reserve.
Why was the bamboo in Qingmuchuan blooming and dying? Was the earthquake totally to blame?
A report from the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) says many factors could cause the death of bamboo at Qingmuchuan: the earthquake and changes in climate and soil; Rhizomys sinensis, the Chinese bamboo rat, had devoured the root systems and pushed the plant down from 1,300 meters to 1,000 meters; 30% of the bamboo groves on the shady slopes had been frozen by the heavy snow in 2008; and large areas of bamboo died unexplained deaths in Yindongzi and Maojialiang.
Natural disasters have harmed 1500 hectares of bamboo at Qingmuchuan, of which 300 hectares have died, mainly on the borders between Sichuan and Gansu Provinces. This area is a key part of the giant panda corridor in Shaanxi, Gansu and Sichuan and the Qingmuchuan Reserve plays an irreplaceable role in the mix and transaction of the giant panda population. If the bamboo groves continue to die, the lack of available food means the giant panda corridor between Qinglin and Minshan will cease to exist. Given that giant pandas cannot migrate without a reliable food supply, this would be an absolute disaster.
But Qingmuchuan is making a backup plan. According to Li Baoqing, head of the reserve’s management bureau, a thorough survey will be conducted and then new groves will be planted in affected areas. They also want to raise public awareness on the situation and request outside assistance to plant bamboo above 900 meters. This, they hope, will help maintain the only corridor between Qinling and Minshan.
Urgent reconstructionQingmuchuan’s monitoring trails were badly damaged by the earthquake. Few dared risking a trip into the mountains, so many of the trails we were trying to follow had been reclaimed by the mountains. On the third monitoring route, the woods above 1,400 meters grew increasingly dense. Thick masses of fern flanked both sides of the trail, while weeds had clamored over what once provided direction underfoot. Mo Dengqing was familiar with the area and leading us forward.
The ridge stands at 1,733 meters above sea level. Though the altitude didn’t climb much higher, the dense vegetation made it difficult to move forward. Since about 1,500 meters we had to make our way directly over, on and through the foliage: we fought against vines underfoot and branches and thorns overhead. When reaching 1,600 meters we walked though bamboo and arbor, making our way up to the ridge along the animal path. Large trees prevented us from getting a view of the ridge, with the sky appearing in cracks between massive branches. We planed to spend 5 hours reaching our destination, but we only able to cover half that distance.
The path to the foot of the mountain was even more difficult to walk on. Broken rocks caused chaos around the ridge and we could not even find a trail made by animals. On top of that, it was getting dark. We took out torches, but our lights could only cover one or two meters ahead in such dense. We were staggering, trying to hold on to branches or vines. Still, we tried to ignore the difficultly of our journey and move faster.
We were lost. One moment, while walking on a 10-meter wide belt of ground, I felt my feet sinking. I quickly jumped on to a dry trunk on and informed the rest of the group of the danger. Looking around with torches, we found ourselves walking on an endless crest of a valley. The earthquake dislodged mud and stone, and all the plants were pushed in to a massive pile in the distant darkness. Dang Xiaowei took out a GPS and satellite remote sensing map--experience was no longer enough to guide us.
With the help of the GPS and satellite-sensing map, Dang Xiaowei found out where we were. Checking old monitoring journals, he said we were 200 meters away from the monitoring route. And if all went well, we would soon arrive at Xiaojiawan.
Relaxing slightly after finding the way, the pale moonlight enabled us to see the mountain opposite, where we found a huge white plate. It was a gash made by the earthquake, but now functioned as a trail marker. Around 40 minutes later we arrived at Fenlinba Protection Station, our destination. We could feel the warmth from the lights that surrounded us. I checked the time: 21:34. We spent 8 hours in the forest on route 3.
Fenlinba Protection Station is special because of its location. Three paths from Sichuan and Gansu provinces unite directly in front of the gate to Fenlinba Protection Station, and extend to Qingmuchuan Town. The station’s location also helped prevent unwanted and potentially harmful access to nature reserve.
Waking up in the tent on the morning of the 12th, I was cold. I could not imagine how the reserve staff could survive through the winter in this weather. Outside I saw some lace-like clouds covering the mountains along the opposite riverbank. Wei Shuqiang told me I had been walking down from the very mountains I was looking at last night. I looked for a while but could not see any trace of a path--maybe we just flew down on the clouds.
Patrolling on the second route was also hard work. It used to take only 6 six hours round trip, but this time we spent 9 hours from start to finish. With no monitoring for 5 months, the path was hidden under a thick tangle of weeds. We were lucky that the weather was cool and no poisonous Qinling vipers lay in wait as we struggled along. This may not be the case in the coming spring and summer.
On the return journey, we went over a hillside that was farmland being returned to forest. The old path was covered by weeds higher than a human being and further defended by thorns; we had to use a scythe to clear the way. Wei Shuqiang mentioned that people coming from Gansu no longer come this way when going to Qingmuchuan Town’s market because of all of the nearby villages were empty. The thick thorns and weeds certainly don’t help matters much either.
According to Qingmuchuan Nature Reserve staff, the earthquake was a double-edged sword for nature conservation. If following former plans, it might have taken over a decade to move Changshaba Village out of the core area. But the earthquake forced the government to move the village out immediately, thereby reducing human interference while the reserve healed.
But there are also many disadvantages. In the future, rangers will face dangerous areas alone. And without the surrounding villages, Fenlinba Protection Station will find it hard to manage its electric bills. They will thus have to convert to new alternative energies like solar--but that would also cost a lot. Road maintenance could also be a problem. After the earthquake, huge boulders blocked off the road to large vehicles. Reserve residents also had to traverse frozen—and sometimes flooded--rivers around 9
times before reaching their destinations.
Most of Qingmuchuan’s 20km of monitoring trails were damaged by the collapse of the mountain, falling rocks and weeds. Rebuilding a safe monitoring path remains a problem.
Basic structures on the nature reserve were severely damaged as well. Three protection stations collapsed, and three other protection and education centers were rendered useless hulks. A great deal of equipment was also destroyed, which stopped routine office work as well as field protection and management. Qingmuchuan’s direct losses stand at around RMB4,980,000. The costs of recovering monitoring abilities to pre-quake levels are staggering. Where are the funds for this? With the arrival of winter, providing shelter for quake victims is key. Building temporary houses for villagers from Changshaba Village means, however, that Ningqiang County will not be able to afford reconstruction costs due to limited reconstruction funds.
The Qingmuchuan Nature Reserve is in dire need of outside support to rebuild the giant panda corridor. With luck, this biodiversity hotspot will regain its balance.