Where the wild things are

Posted on 14 November 2002

Looking for a nature holiday in China? A place where you can enjoy stunning wilderness, comfortable accommodation and contribute to nature conservation? Then head to northern Sichuan’s Wanglang Nature Reserve - home of the giant panda.
For an adventure holiday in Asia - a trip where you can explore one of Earth’s wild, clean corners - places like Nepal, Sabah, or Mongolia probably come to mind. But probably not China.

Where in China can you find wilderness in which wild bears, leopards, and monkeys still live, where the water is clean, and the air unpolluted?

Well, there are areas like this in China. And the best thing about this particular spot is that it’s set up for independent tourists, in a way that won’t harm nature.

Wanglang Nature Reserve harbours one of China’s few remaining virgin forests. Unlike most of China, where commercial logging was stopped in 1998, logging here was banned in 1963, saving much of this forest from having ever been logged at all. This protected area covers 320km2 and encloses 5 different ecosystems, from rocky 5,000m snow-covered mountain peaks to alpine old-growth forest. It shelters a multitude of rare and endangered species, including black bears, brown bears, red pandas, takin, musk deer, golden monkeys, and rare varieties of pheasants. A wide variety of plants - from rare orchid species to valuable medicinal herbs - also grow in the thickness. But Wanglang is most well-known as the home of 32 giant pandas.

To reach this wilderness, a small group of tourists and I drove north from Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital. The promise of Wanglang’s unspoilt natural scenery, peaceful walking trails, and comfortable accommodation sounded almost too good to be true. On top of that, funds from our visit would contribute to the nature reserve’s conservation efforts. Two-and-a-half hours outside of Chengdu, the modern highway we were on degenerated into a twisting one-lane road, hugging mountainsides prone to landslides on one side and with a steep drop on the other. Though the road has been in existence for decades, it was only paved last year. This has given us (and potentially many others), relatively easy access to the area.

As we headed north, we shared the road with oversized tour buses on their way to Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, now a well-established hotspot for China’s quickly expanding domestic mass tourist market. But as the big buses roared north, we swung off the paved road onto a bumpy small dirt one leading to Wanglang.

The first sign that this reserve was different from most others in China was the well-organized visitor’s centre at the entrance to the reserve. There, an informative bi-lingual exhibit introduced the area’s flora and fauna, the reserve’s scenic spots, environmental issues, and of course, everything about pandas. Driving a few more kilometres down the road into the reserve, the second clue to Wanglang’s uniqueness came into view - its ecolodge. Set in a valley surrounded by forest-covered mountains, the cozy and quiet lodge was the perfect antidote to months spent in an overpopulated, polluted city.

Wanglang National Nature Reserve sits on the transition zone between the Tibetan Plateau and the Sichuan basin, where elevations range between 2,300 and 4,980m. The air here is cool year-round and, far away from the exhaust fume-ridden capital, infinitely more breathable. Established as a nature reserve in 1963, the area’s tall trees, thick undergrowth bamboo, and flowing streams combine to make the perfect habitat for pandas.

Official counts estimate that of China’s approximately 1,000 pandas remaining in the wild, 80% live in northern Sichuan, with 230 of them in Pingwu county, where Wanglang is located.

Over the years, Wanglang's panda population has gone up and down. When the reserve was created as 1 of China's 4 original panda reserves, there were an estimated 66 giant pandas here. But a decade later, after bamboo flowering (resulting in the starvation of pandas) and a major earthquake, only 19 remained. Now numbers are back above 30, and apparently stable.

Wanglang is one of a chain of 13 nature reserves in northern Sichuan that make up a panda corridor. The protection of forest for shelter and bamboo undergrowth for food in these corridors are vital to minimize inbreeding, an emerging problem as panda numbers dwindle and habitats fragment. In addition to protecting its resident pandas, finding ways to link these areas in order to minimize fragmentation of the panda habitat is one of Wanglang’s main goals.

The reserve serves as a scientific and training base for panda conservationists. China’s first Geographic Information System (GIS) database was established in Wanglang in 1998 in order to gather valuable information about pandas and their habitat. Though China’s 1998 national logging ban eliminated the worst threat to Wanglang, it also brought new challenges. With no more revenue from taxes on logging, local government has fewer funds to support conservation. And some of the things people are doing to make up for the loss of logging income are also harmful to the forest: poaching, illegal wood-cutting, and collection of medicinal plants.

To address this, a WWF project here is helping to find alternative sources of income both for local people and for conservation. The ecolodge we are staying in was developed with the support of WWF, allowing the reserve to host small groups on low-impact tours such as ours. The income from our group will help supplement the reserve's budget for conservation activities and help create jobs for locals. The aim is that this model of tourism management will spread to other natural areas in China, where there is growing pressure from more harmful mass tourism.On the first day, our group  set off to explore the reserve. Before coming to Wanglang, we were firmly informed that the chances of seeing a panda in the wild were pretty much zero. In fact, the reserve’s manager of 12 years, Jiang Shi Wei, has never seen a giant panda in the wild: “Pandas are shy and wary of humans. They can smell us approaching from half a kilometer or more away, and they move quickly to hide.” But Jiang and the reserve’s monitoring and patrolling team have found lots of traces of pandas in the reserve.

Clouds looming overhead, we drove along the dirt road and stopped next to a gushing, crystal-clear stream. With the threat of rain, we decided to walk along the small road, rather than down one of the smaller trails. Even though it was 1 October, the beginning of one of China’s major national holidays, not a person or car was in sight. In fact no human impositions marred the landscape – not a single concrete edifice or rock carving anywhere. A golden pheasant made an appearance just a few meters away - the first of many birds we saw on our peaceful walk that day.

Along with us for the hike as a cultural guide was Xu Shi Xiu, a village elder and medicine man from one of the nearby Baima villages. The Baima - a minority group so small they are often lumped together with Tibetans, despite the fact that they aren’t Buddhist but animist - inhabit this area of Pingwu. Living in hamlets, the Baima live a traditional way of life. Along the walk, Xu taught us about the area’s medicinal plants: “This helps stop bleeding and clots blood.” A few minutes later, he pointed to the root of another plant. “This stops babies from peeing in bed,” he said. Chancing on a three-foot high marijuana plant, we asked what it was good for. “Constipation,” was the answer.

We returned to the lodge and decided take advantage of the remaining daylight with a short hike up Wanglang’s interpretive trail, recently built by WWF volunteers. The trail’s designer, Eric Delvin, a volunteer from the US, led the way, bringing along the last 2 signposts to place along the way, marking the completion of the trail. The trail head, only a few metres from the lodge, introduced the area’s ecosystems. As we hiked up the steep path, bilingual signboards - well-placed to allow us to catch our breath - explained the area’s flora and fauna, and offered information that gave us a better understanding of our surroundings. A half-hour climb later, we were rewarded with a stunning vista overlooking the valley below - prime giant panda habitat. Trees, their leaves turning red and yellow for the fall, covered the surrounding valley and mountain slopes as far as we could see.

Back in the ecolodge, we warmed ourselves around the massive stone fireplace, the centerpiece of the ecolodge’s common room. Designed by an Australian architect, the comfortable room had skylights above and windows surrounding the room with views of the forest. Though far from luxurious, the ecolodge was comfortable and unpretentious. Our rooms included extras - like heated beds and a private hot shower - to help soften the rough edges. It reminded me of a backpackers lodge in the mountains of Nepal - but minus the backpackers. “You are our first Chinese ecotourists,” said Jiang to the two Chinese couples in our group, “almost all visitors to the lodge so far have been scientists and students.”  The only other guest in the lodge besides us was a lone scientist from Beijing Zoo, here to analyze the nutritional value of bamboo in Wanglang.

The next morning we were greeted with a cloudless sky - making it a little easier to get out of my heated bed. After a quick breakfast – eggs, toast, zhou (Chinese rice porridge), even peanut butter and jelly - we headed out with Jiang and 2 of Wanglang’s monitoring and patrolling team, Fu Xiaobo and Zhou Minghuai. Donning waterproof shoes, jackets, and pants, we followed our ranger-guides into the wild. Bamboo grew densely all around us, and trees soared overhead. The sweet smell of rain from the previous day filled the air. Below, the damp forest floor felt like a soft sponge. As we hiked further and further into panda terrain, I felt both thrilled and guilty, a voyeur in the giant panda’s domain.

Emerging several hours later, we had seen several traces of pandas - a tree trunk where a panda removed the bark and rubbed his backside (confirmed by Jiang after sniffing the scent it left behind), panda droppings, and remnants of chewed bamboo stalks. We even discovered a giant panda bed - a 2m2 area covered with recently felled bamboo stalks - which Jiang guessed was prepared by a panda to give birth.

But pandas weren’t the only wildlife we found evidence of - we heard the running hoofs of a blue sheep, spotted wild pig and takin footprints, and saw several species of birds. We were lucky to have been invited to tag along on the patrol. “We don’t usually bring tourists here,” said Jaing, “Too many people will disturb the panda habitat”.

That afternoon we took one last hike in completely different terrain to the foot of one of Wanglang’s highest peaks. I was surprised to see a large tour bus and a few cars in the parking lot of the trail head. But a few minutes walk up the trail we had left the crowd - none of whom ventured far from the parking lot - behind. At an altitude of 3,200m, the trail eventually broke out into a wide open space, with nothing much taller than bushes and a few small trees. Along the way we found droppings from leapord cats and musk deer — both endangered species. Dominating the landscape were 5,000m snow-covered mountain peaks.

Of Wanglang’s numerous trails, only a small handful have been mapped and are maintained. Ancient trails like “Cha ma gu dao” (Tea-horse ancient road), part of a historical trade route for Tibetan tribes exchanging horses for tea with Han Chinese, exist throughout the reserve. Trails from Wanglang even lead all the way Juizhaigou Nature Reserve in the north (a 2-day hike) and to Huanlong Nature Reserve to the west (a one-day hike). But as the trails aren’t maintained, to make the journey a local guide is absolutely necessary.

As our van led us gently out of the reserve 2 days later, I thought again of the paved road that led us here and how this and other new developments would bring change to the area. An hour’s drive outside of the reserve, many of the Baima hamlets were busy constructing homestays for the area’s burgeoning tourist industry. The Baima, no longer earning their income from logging, looked now to be pinning their hopes on tourism as a means of income. “We’ve set up trainings on ecotourism, but not everyone listens,” says Jiang, who is helping to implement WWF’s sustainable livelihoods project here. Together with handicrafts, bee-keeping, and vegetable planting, WWF is trying to promote ecotourism not only in the reserve but in the Baima community as well.

Our group spent the night in one of the Baima homestays - and shared our accommodation with a group of 40 or so tourists from Mianyang, a large city near Chengdu. The atmosphere was loud and festive - karaoke blasting well into the night, group dancing around a massive bonfire, and lots of singing and drinking the local Baima honey wine.

In contrast to Wanglang, most of the visitors here seemed to arrive in big tour groups. This is at least in part due to encouragement from the county government who are promoting this type of tourism. Appraised by their superiors for the speed of economic development in their county, they face pressure to pay more attention to short-term investments (such as mass tourism) rather than long-term conservation. While tourism is definitely bringing income to at least some members of the local community, whether or not the perfect ecotourism model - one that is sustainable and works to conserve nature - will be achieved is yet to be seen.

But in order to help pandas in Pingwu, it is necessary to work both inside and outside of protected areas. How to reconcile nature conservation with economic development and the growing pressure from tourism here is an issue facing not only this area, but many of the world’s last clean corners.“Locals must want to protect pandas for there to be hope,” says Jiang. With locals like Jiang, perhaps this paradise still has a chance.

Getting there
Fly/train to Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Wanglang Nature Reserve is about a 7 hour drive north. Drive to Mianyang, then to Pingwu town. From Pingwu town, Wanglang is about a 2-3 hour drive. Direct buses from Chengdu to Pinwu leave twice per day; or take a bus from Chengdu to Mianyang (frequent buses throughout the day) and then from Mianyang to Pingwu (frequent buses). From Pingwu, WWF can arrange transportation to Wanglang for Y200.

It’s advisable to make a prior reservation for Wanglang’s ecolodge. Contact Jiang Shi Wei by email at scwlnrt@my-public.sc.cninfo.net or Li Ning at nli@wwfchina.org. Rates are as follows: Ecolodge:Y200-300 per double room; Y300 triple room; Meals:Y100 for 3 meals/day; Admission to reserve: Y30; Guides & interpreters:Y200/day for Chinese guide; Y400/day for English-speaking guide

For more information:
Li Ning
Communications Coordinator, Species Programme, WWF China
Tel.: +86 10 8563 6538 ext. 223
Fax: +86 10 8561 5731
E-mail: nli@wwfchina.org
Wanglang's numerous mountain peaks reach up to 5000m.
© WWF-China / Caroline LIOU
Wanglang Reserve's ecolodge.
© WWF-China / Caroline LIOU
Looking for signs of giant pandas.
© WWF-China / Caroline LIOU
Local Baima woman
© WWF-China / Caroline LIOU