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Protecting Panda Habitat Can Generate Community Income

China recently reformed its collective forest policy, allowing forest owners to grant management rights to outside enterprises. In a letter published last week in the journal Science, Li (Aster) Zhang and other CI scientists propose that “eco-compensation” would bring more income to local communities while protecting habitat for the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca ).
 
In early spring of 2010, my colleagues Russ Mittermeier, Biao Yang and I visited Changqing National Nature Reserve, one of the famous panda protected areas in Shanxi Province. There, we saw a young male panda in the wild. He was so shy, just showing his black-and-white coat for a couple of seconds before disappearing into the dense bamboo forest in front of us.
 
Beloved by the world for centuries, the panda once lived across large areas of China as well as parts of Vietnam and Myanmar. However, this magnificent creature is now confined to just 21,000 square kilometers (8,100 square miles) in a few isolated mountain forests in southwest China — an area smaller than El Salvador or the state of New Hampshire.
 
The Chinese government has made enormous strides to conserve the giant panda, including:
 
  • Designating 63 panda reserves
  • Upgrading threatened habitats by reforesting or restoring native forests, and limiting human access
  • Increasing the number and conservation skills of forestry staff
  • Strictly banning hunting of the species
  • Pioneering captive breeding techniques
As a result of these efforts, the official count of giant pandas in the wild has increased from fewer than 1,000 in the late 1980s to nearly 1,600 today.
 
However, these achievements in giant panda conservation are now being jeopardized by recent tenure reform of China’s 167 million hectares (413 million acres) of collective forest as we reported in the recent issue of Science.
 
Under China’s current property law, the reform would enable collective forest owners to transfer the rights to their forest to outside private sector companies and timber enterprises. As a result, commercial logging, increased collection of firewood and non-timber forest products, unregulated tourism and certain types of industrial development may take place in collective forests at far higher levels than before.
 
These potential threats may cause deforestation, degradation or disturbance up to 345,700 hectares (more than 850,000 acres) of giant panda habitat, or 15% of what remains.
 
It’s true that the reform policy may benefit individual farmers through income earned by selling their collective forest for commercial use. However, other compensation approaches could pay local people as much or more while preserving these key corridors of panda habitat.
 
Back in July 2011, I remember discussing these issues with Russ and Biao. We were concerned about how these reforms might impact China’s panda population. The following year, Jonah Busch visited China and became involved, conducting an economic study to figure out how much “eco-compensation” funding would be needed to lease those collective forests for panda conservation.
 
China has spent more than US$ 100 billion on “eco-compensation” to buy back development rights from local communities in order to secure the continued provision of ecosystem services like freshwater provision and erosion prevention in Qinghai, Gansu, Inner Mongolia and some other provinces in southwest China. Under this system, communities sign long-term binding conservation agreements for forest habitat outside of existing reserves in exchange for monetary compensation from the government.
 
This system is already in practice in places like Kaihua in Zhejiang province, where the county government is paying landowners US$ 70 per hectare per year for 48 years to maintain 6,300 hectares (15,600 acres) of collective forest in Gutianshan National Nature Reserve.
 
Extending the eco-compensation program to giant panda habitat could reduce the threat that tenure reform poses to the giant panda while fulfilling the reform’s goal of increasing local economic benefits. Based on a simple model of the relationship between habitat area and giant panda population, we estimated that US$ 240 million in effective eco-compensation payments could prevent a decline in the wild giant panda population from 1,596 to 1,378. An additional US$ 2.25 billion for effective eco-compensation and habitat restoration could increase the population to 2,234 — a jump that would cause the species to be downgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List criteria.
 
We hope that our letter to Science will raise more public awareness about this issue, as well as convince the Chinese government that it is possible to benefit local communities without further endangering one of the country’s most iconic species.
 
Li (Aster) Zhang is the technical director of CI-China.