Panda cub Bao Bao makes her debut at the China Conservation and Research Center in Sichuan, March 24, 2017.
China plans to build a Giant Panda National Park spanning three provinces to help the endangered animals mingle and enrich their gene pool.
Pandas isolated on six mountains in Gansu, Shaanxi and Sichuan will be able to come together in the proposed national park.
The park will cover 27,134 square kilometers, three times the area of America's Yellowstone National Park. It will have a core area, protecting pandas in 67 current reserves as well as another 8,000 endangered animals and plants.
Like many other endangered species, pandas are suffering habitat loss and fragmentation due to natural disasters, climate change and expanding human activity.
Multiple administrations in three provinces worsen the situation. When a panda crosses a provincial boundary, jurisdiction becomes blurred.
The park will resolve such troubles. When it is complete, pandas will roam freely between the current far-flung habitats. It also means a lot of people will have to move - at least 170,000 people in Sichuan will have to relocate to establish the core protection area.
“Unlike nature reserves, the park does not stand alone. China will formulate an overall plan for the national park system. It will be a haven for biodiversity and provide protection for the whole ecological system,” says Hou Rong, director of Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
China's national park system comprises the Giant Panda National Park and eight others devoted to endangered species and the headwaters of major rivers. The central authorities last year endorsed reform plans to “advance ecological progress,” which included the plan to establish national park system.
Hou says the park will offer residents new homes and work. It could, for example, hire them as guides for tourists and as workers to build infrastructure, so people and nature will benefit together.
People have lived in panda reserves for generations, but they cut bamboo shoots and grazed livestock on hills, eating into the pandas' habitat and disrupting their lives.
Qubie Mazi, of the Yi ethnic minority, has lived in Sichuan's Hei Hezi Village for 40 years, making a living by growing potatoes and collecting herbs. A panda reserve in the village is a key corridor connecting populations in Liangshan Mountain.
Poverty once drove the villagers to poach pandas, but after a penalty and bonus system was introduced, they learned to value national treasure and they now cherish them.
“I saw a panda in one of the village houses a month ago. I guess he came to look for food or company. I know when they need to mate, they will go to the other side of the mountain. When I find something unusual about the pandas, I report it to the reserve,” says Qubie.
Asked how he feels about making way for pandas, he says, “I will move, if I can have a new home and a new job.”
“We should lead locals to protect the environment, not to spoil it,” says Heng Yi, senior staff of China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP). “The key measure is to help people live a sustainable life and to get them out of poverty.”
“Once they have access to electricity, they will stop cutting bamboos. If they have a decent job and steady income, they won't risk to poach pandas,” he added.