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Counting China's wild pandas

YINGJING, SICHUAN—The panda was always one of my favorite animals.

Until I found myself slipping and sliding down a steep muddy mountain slope in southwestern Sichuan, looking for panda poop.

To be precise, someone else was searching. 

My colleagues and I were just attempting to keep up with him on what was easily one of the more physically grueling NBC News assignments we’d all been on in years.

Li Guiren, a fleet-footed 36-year old Sichuan native who works at the Chinese Forestry Department, was hiking through the mud, following coordinates on his bright yellow GPS device.  He’s one of 70 “trackers” working in Sichuan to count pandas in the wild—which they do by collecting panda droppings.  (More on that in a moment.)

China kicked off its panda census last month.  It’s the fourth one since the 1970s, when they instituted the practice to keep tabs on the worldwide panda bear count every 10 years.

The wild panda is only found in China, across parts of three provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi, covering 5,400 square miles.  Or the size of Connecticut.

The bears like being high up, usually somewhere between 4,000 and 11,500 square feet above sea level in mountain forests with a damp climate.

The last census revealed only 1,596 wild pandas existed with 290 pandas in captivity around the world.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

Li Guiren takes notes on the geography on a Sichuan mountain.

“About 70 to 80 percent [of all the pandas in the world] live in Sichuan,” said Huang Zhi of the Bifengxia Panda Breeding Center in Ya’an, Sichuan.  “Sichuan also has the highest number of wild pandas.”

Trackers in the field
Sichuan is also where the two-year panda census project has launched.  Smaller teams in Gansu and Shaanxi will begin working in the field next year.

Early in the morning, a group of twenty men suited up in wet-weather clothes and thin boots.  They reviewed their cartographic materials and compared notes one last time before setting off.  Each one carried the same bright yellow GPS device Li was toting.

Li, who took part in the last panda census, said new technology has had a huge impact on their work.  “We can get a lot more done more quickly,” he said, with the GPS device shaving the amount of time in the field down by about 30 percent.

Each tracker is assigned a near-vertical tract of land to explore.  On average, they cover 1.2 to 1.5 square miles a day, looking for panda droppings.  (A typical male panda roams in a territory about 3.3 square miles whereas a female confines herself to 1.8 square miles.)  Li found a pile that looked like it had been produced within the past three days, which he bagged and brought back to base camp for analysis.

“We take a sample for DNA testing,” he said as he prepared the panda waste.  “The DNA test demands fresh feces not more than four days old.  This is very fresh.”

But DNA testing isn’t foolproof so Li and his colleagues also measured the undigested bamboo scraps to help identify the pandas individually.  “We measure the width of the teeth marks,” he explained.  Each bear has an individual bite with differing teeth sizes.

Habitat challenges
While in the panda’s natural habitat, the research teams also take detailed notes of the conditions and its geology. 

“What people normally care about is the number of the pandas,” said Gu Xiaodong, a scientist with the Sichuan branch of the Wildlife Survey Conservation and Management in the Forestry Department.  “We care more about the quality of their habitat.”

With the data the trackers are collecting, the scientists will be able to analyze changes to the habitat and "draw up more effective conservation policies," continued Gu.  “For example, last time we found pandas in locations between the reserves we had established,” he said.  “So we had to set up more reserves to protect these pandas.”

Adrienne Mong

Li Guiren and other researchers measure undigested bamboo in the panda droppings to help identify each animal.

Researchers also hope to have more detailed information about the impact of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which measured 7.9 (by the U.S. Geological Survey) and devastated the famed Wolong Giant Panda Reserve Center, one of the earliest research bases set up by the Chinese government in the early 1980s. 

But humans remain the biggest threat to the survival of wild pandas.

With more than 80 million people, Sichuan is one of China’s more densely populated provinces.  In recent years, it has seen large inflows of government investment and is rapidly urbanizing.  Scientists have cited roads and high-speed railways as a major hazard encroaching on the panda’s natural habitat in the mountains.

But mining is also a problem.  The day we trudged up the mountain with Li and Gu, we passed a couple of mines—one of them lead, whose run-off cast an unhealthy gray tinge to the river.  Loud explosions went off even during our hike, unsettling us as much as the pandas.

“The place where we are doing research now, it’s always been a traffic-intensive area with a lot of human activity,” said Gu.  “The pandas here probably choose to go higher.”

But they still sometimes descend into human territory, especially if it means getting something to eat other than bamboo plants. While the giant panda's diet consists mostly of bamboo, they do have the digestive system of carnivores. 

Gu confirmed that local farmers have regularly complained about pandas raiding their livestock.  “One farmer has his goats eaten by pandas every year,” recalled Gu, who said the Forestry Department offers compensation in such instances.

Mating challenges
Mating habits are also a challenge, particularly for pandas in captivity.

Female pandas are only in heat for three days a year.  The window for conceiving is very narrow—from 12 to 24 hours during those 72 hours.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

The panda's natural habitat is a rugged landscape, but it's also being encroached by China's westward development.

Pandas in the wild don’t generally have a problem reproducing, said Huang from the breeding center.  But those in captivity usually need a bit of help—whether through artificial insemination or even the famed panda porn method.

Despite the success in breeding the cuddly animals in captivity, there’s been none so far in re-introducing fully domesticated pandas into the wild.

Nonetheless, researchers say they think breeding programs and conservation efforts have worked to keep the panda from advancing any closer to extinction.

“We really hope once the census is done, we’ll find more pandas than we found in the last census,” said Li.  “That will mean what we’ve been doing has made progress.”

And if the scientists are right, that will make at least one civilian very happy.

A man by the name of An Yanshi in Sichuan is collecting panda poop by the bucket-loads to make tea—with curative properties.

“Pandas have a very poor digestive system and only absorb about 30 percent of everything they eat,” An has been quoted as saying.  “That means their excrement is rich in fibres and nutrients.”

He plans to market the tea as the world’s most expensive—at $36,000 a poopA pop.  A pound.