Vanessa Hull, a 25-year-old Ph.D. candidate, walks the snowy, remote mountains of western China's Sichuan Province, which is also the heart of panda country. She's hoping to capture, collar and track up to four wild, giant pandas using advanced global positioning systems.
Hull and her team are helping China's efforts to reintroduce pandas into the wild. For the past dozen years, American and Chinese research teams have collaborated to study the pandas in Wolong. Established in 1963, the reserve covers almost 500 acres and hosts more than 4,000 plant and animal species. Thanks to successful captive breeding programs, in 2003, the China Center for Research and Conservation of the Giant Panda in the Wolong Nature Reserve launched a program to reintroduce captive pandas into the wild.
Along with her research gear, the Michigan State University graduate student lugs a small digital video camera and a laptop computer to transmit journal entries to a Web site the university has set up to give the public a peak at a day in the life of a panda researcher.
The high-mountain reserve is a three-hour drive from the city of Chengdu, and although Hull has visited the area before, this is her first winter studying the elusive animals there. Her web log reads:
Dec. 2. [I] notice that snow caps the higher mountains. Wei says the first snowfall is last night and he thinks it is a good omen.
Giant pandas are the darlings of their native China and much of the world. But on a walk through panda habitat the endangered bears are invisible. Only an estimated 1,600 live in the wild.
Even in reserves, pandas share their homes with people locked in their own struggle to survive. About 5,000 people life in the reserve, where logging and farming have wiped out acres of panda-friendly terrain. Ironically, China's efforts to save the goggled animals have made the nature reserves an irresistible tourist attraction—panda fans and ecotourists flock like groupies.
The home base in Wuyipeng lies in the reserve's bamboo jungle about an hour-and-a-half hike up the switchbacks. The remote research station Hull and her two Chinese research assistants will call home for the next few months has sheltered scores of panda researchers since it was established in the 1980s. In 2001, the station was refurbished and now has electricity, a bathroom, a new phone line and a TV.
Dec. 5. I always say that I can feel a special energy on the hike and when we arrive up at Wuyipeng because it is perhaps the most sacred place for giant panda research.
The center has been working to release captive-raised adult pandas by starting them out in large enclosures to monitor how they do in areas similar to the wild. The study gives scientists information about the kind of habitat pandas need to survive in the wild.
Hull is among the first to obtain permits to trap giant pandas and fit them with safe GPS collars. She and the team will then map where the elusive creatures' travel, indicating which areas they like best.
"The benefit of using a GPS collar," Hull says, "is you know exactly where the pandas are. Then we can go to that location and get more information about it that might tell us why the panda is there and not at some other location. If we know what kind of habitat pandas like, then we know what kind of habitat to conserve or restore."
But first, they must catch the animals. For that, the team uses seven roomy cages sprinkled around the reserve. Four are metal and have been sitting open and baited, but not set, throughout the reserve since summer to get the pandas used to them. Chunks of goat serve as bait. Even though pandas are famous for their bamboo diet, it's more a matter of availability than taste. Pandas are classified as carnivores.
Dec. 11. We ate and then got ourselves ready to go out in the field to set our first trap. Lao Yang and Lao Fan showed me the goat that they had slaughtered for the bait in the traps while I was in Chengdu buying my computer. They decided that the first cage would contain the goat's head.
It takes three-and-a-half hours to hike the 5-mile route to check all the cages, which must be done every day.