Endangered Species Handbook

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Eurasian Temperate Forests: Land of the Giant Panda

     China's once extensive forests have declined over the centuries as human population increased.  In south-central China, temperate forests of many types are watered by the five great rivers of Southeast Asia: the Mekong, Irrawaddy, Yellow, Yangtze and Salween (Mittermeier 1999).  This is botanically the richest temperate region in the world, twice the size of California with half of China's plants--12,000 species, of which 3,500 are endemic (Mittermeier 1999).  This is the home of the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca).  Fewer than 1,000 of these black-and-white bears remain in small, scattered populations.  When climates were cooler during the Ice Ages 12,000 years ago, Giant Pandas had a far larger distribution, covering much of central and southern China and bordering areas of Burma.  As climates warmed and human populations took over much of their habitat, they declined in numbers, and their bamboo forests retreated.  Today, Giant Pandas remain only in three provinces, with the largest number in Sichuan.  Between 1974 and 1989, their habitat was halved as a result of logging and settlements, from 20,000 square kilometers to 10,000 square kilometers (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  Satellite studies of their major reserve, Wolong Nature Reserve, found a dramatic decline in forest cover from 1965 to 1997 as growing numbers of people living in the reserve cut deciduous trees and bamboo for firewood (Revkin 2001).  During the last decades, with international attention focused on this extremely charismatic animal, reserves have been set aside.  Twenty reserves have been established in the remnants of the Giant Panda's habitat, but the species has continued to decline as destruction of forests turn the reserves into islands surrounded by clearcut hillsides.  Many Pandas have starved to death when their bamboo forests were cut or underwent a cyclical die-off.  Prior to this deforestation, when local bamboo forests died off, Giant Pandas were able to wander widely in search of other bamboo.  Their habitat has decreased so much that they are now at the mercy of local conditions within each reserve (Mittermeier 1999 et al. 1999).
     A long‑term study of this species by Dr. George Schaller, of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, arrived at the pessimistic conclusion that the Giant Panda was headed inexorably toward extinction (Schaller 1993).  In his 1993 book, The Last Panda, Schaller wrote a scathing and unflinching analysis of the failure of existing conservation programs.  Among his conclusions was that almost all of the millions of dollars raised around the world to preserve this most popular of all animals had been wasted while wild Giant Panda populations dwindled.  His research revealed that Pandas were readily taken into captivity during bamboo die‑offs when, in fact, enough bamboo still remained to supply their needs (Schaller 1993).  Most of the funds were spent on building dungeon-like breeding and holding compounds rather than on saving its ever‑dwindling habitat or hiring wardens to prevent poaching (Schaller 1993).  The Wolong Reserve, which covers 780 square miles, was the location of his research area. Wolong had 4,200 people living within its borders in 1989, who were cutting trees and setting snares to kill wildlife for meat, musk and skins (Schaller 1993).  In eight years alone, 14 square miles of the Wolong forest were destroyed, and an unknown number of Pandas died in cruel wire snares (Schaller 1993). 
     Only time will tell whether the urgent habitat and anti‑poaching needs of the Giant Panda will be met, or whether funds meant for its conservation will continue to be spent on breeding compounds.  Seventeen forest corridors are planned to link fragmented habitat, but breeding and holding compounds continue to be built, with a goal of 32 stations (Williams 1994).  A dedicated Chinese scientist, Pan Wenshi, who has studied these animals for decades, helped save the habitat of some 80 Pandas in these mountains when the high‑pitched whining of chain saws was within earshot (Wenshi 1995).  The National Geographic Society filmed the mother Panda that Pan Wenshi had studied throughout her life, Jiao Jiao, and her tiny mouse‑sized cub when only a few days old (see Video section).  This cub, a female he named Xi Wang, meaning Hope, grew into a healthy young Panda and, when four months old, took her first shaky steps out of the warm den (Wenshi 1995).  As she grew older, Xi Wang took naps lying on her back in the tops of pine trees, watching her mother as she fed in the forest (Wenshi 1995).
     If forest corridors are not soon set aside linking the reserves to one another to allow free movement of Pandas, the species will probably fade gradually to extinction from inbreeding (Lean and Hinrichsen 1992).  One source of funding to preserve habitat is the Chinese government loan program, under which Giant Pandas are sent to foreign zoos for periods of up to 10 years.  Various zoos in the United States have arranged such loans, paying the Chinese government $1 million per year per zoo, and these funds must be applied to conserving the species in the wild under supervision of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  A pair in the San Diego Zoo produced a healthy female cub in 1999 through artificial insemination.  Other pairs were acquired by Zoo Atlanta and the National Zoo in Washington, DC, in 2000.  Few Giant Pandas breed naturally in zoos.  This funding and the new attention directed at conserving these highly endangered and endearing animals may turn the tide in China to protecting their habitat.  If successful, it will also spell survival for thousands of rare Chinese plants and animals that inhabit the Pandas’ forests.
     Xi Wang, the Giant Panda studied by Wenshi, inhabits the Qin Ling Mountains, haven for a wide diversity of rare plants.  One mountain alone, the 12,359-foot Taibai Mountain, has 150 endemic species of plants, among them the Qin Ling Mountain Fir (Abies chenensis) (Ji 1990).  Two varieties of this species are listed by the 1997 IUCN Red List Plants (Walter and Gillett 1998).  A neighboring mountain, the Shennongjia, is known as a "Treasure House of Plants" because of the many unusual and ancient species here (Ji 1990).  In Hubei Province in the same region is the Dawn Redwood, a deciduous tree which is a close relative of the North American Coast Redwood and Sequoia but far more ancient in lineage (Ji 1990).  Until 1941 when a few groves were discovered by Chinese botanists, the Dawn Redwood was known only from Jurassic fossils (MacKinnon 1996).  Small populations survive in Sichuan, Hubei and Hunan provinces, but the species is considered Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (Walter and Gillett 1998) and only about 1,000 trees may survive in the wild (Dyer 2000).  This tree grows to a height of about 115 feet, its delicate pinnate leaves turning golden in the fall.  As the sole member of its genus, and a living example of trees that grew in the age of dinosaurs, it is considered a great botanical treasure.
     Its seeds have been planted in many parks and botanical gardens around the world.  John Williams, the award-winning composer, became fascinated with a Dawn Redwood growing in Boston's Public Garden (Dyer 2000).  "It not only looked lovely, but it seemed animate, even intelligent," he said (Dyer 2000). By chance, he met a retired Harvard University botanist, Dr. Siu-Ying Hu, and praised the tree on a walk through the Public Garden.  Hu pointed out that he had planted this very tree back in the 1940s, having brought a bag of seeds to America when he arrived from China (Dyer 2000).  The Dawn Redwood inspired Williams to compose a musical piece entitled "Tree Song" for harps, keyboards, flutes and delicate percussion.  It was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the opening of the summer concert series at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, in July 2000 and recorded on CD (Dyer 2000).  
     The extraordinary Dove Tree (Davidia involucrata) was named after its discoverer, Pere Armand David, a French missionary who traveled in China in the 19th century and named hundreds of animals and plants.  Its white leaves are up to 6 inches long and 3 inches wide, resembling a flock of doves taking flight (Schaller 1993).  These trees are quite rare in China, after centuries of deforestation (Walter and Gillett 1998).  Even in 1900, when American botanist E.H. Wilson went to China to find seeds from this tree, he traveled six months before he even met someone who had ever seen one (Stocker 1997).  When Wilson finally found a Dove Tree, only a stump remained:  it had been cut and the wood used to build a house.  He later found 10 wild specimens and brought back seed to Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum (Stocker 1997).  This species, too, has ancient origins and once dominated prehistoric forests (MacKinnon 1996).  Like the Dawn Redwood, it was rescued from extinction and is now cultivated in nurseries and botanical gardens (Stocker 1997). 
     Many of these plants and trees share the habitat of the Giant Panda, and forest reserves would ensure their survival.  A number of endangered mammals that have disappeared from other regions as a result of hunting and habitat loss can be found in Wolong and other Giant Panda Reserves.  The Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens), thought to be a relative of the Giant Panda, is a rare native, as are the Golden Monkey (Pygathrix roxellanae) and the Takin (Budorcas taxicolor), a goat‑like ungulate.  All three are endangered species and declining as the forests are cut.  An endangered bird, the Sichuan Partridge (Arborophila rufipectus), is restricted to an area of less than 100 square kilometers in south-central Sichuan, where fewer than 2,000 birds survive (BI 2000, Collar et al. 1994).  Its old-growth broadleaf forest is being felled at a rapid rate, and people enter its habitat to collect bamboo shoots in its breeding season, disturbances that are driving these birds toward extinction (BI 2000).  Twenty-six other species of pheasants inhabit this part of south-central China, including the most iridescent birds in the world, the monals.  The threatened Chinese Monal (Lophophorus lhuysii) inhabits rhododendron and high-altitude coniferous forests and is in decline as a result of logging and hunting, which have been facilitated by the construction of logging roads (BI 2000).  The male Chinese Monal has dazzling plumage in an array of emerald green, purple, coppery-golden, purplish-green and white, while the female is more subdued in gray and rufous-brown.  The creation of reserves for the Giant Panda have aided this bird's survival, as
several are within this bird's range (BI 2000).
     China's 25,000 native plant species make up 11.4 percent of the world's plants, including many ancient ones (MacKinnon 1996).  The Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) has been on Earth for 200 million years; this tree grows wild in scattered locations in China, indicating that it was once far more widespread and was eliminated by logging over the centuries (MacKinnon 1996).  In prehistoric times, Ginkgoes grew throughout the world but were thought extinct until a few trees were found in remote forests (MacKinnon 1996).  Its unusual wide, lobed leaves turn yellow in the fall before falling.  This tree has been considered sacred by the Chinese for centuries and is grown in temple gardens and other religious sites.  Extracts are sold around the world as an herbal stimulant.  In the Himalayas, giant cypresses (Cupressus) grow to immense size when protected by Buddhist temples; one specimen measures almost 20 feet in diameter and is estimated to be 2,000 years old (MacKinnon 1996).  Entire forests of these giant trees also grew on Taiwan, where only massive stumps remain (MacKinnon 1996).  Stephen Spongberg, Curator at the Arnold Arboretum, has studied China's native trees and found numerous species to be extinct in the wild (Stocker 1997).  Antique Chinese furniture sought by collectors is often made from the wood of trees that are now extinct, and some trees are so rare that most Chinese botanists have never seen them in the wild (Stocker 1997).       
     China has more forest types than any country in the world.  In the far north, taiga dominates.  Conifers, birches and oaks blend into temperate coniferous forests in the northeast.  Further south, the Giant Panda's habitat is temperate, evergreen forest.  Himalayan forests occur in the west, and in the south, tropical monsoon rainforest prevails (Ji 1990).  Unfortunately, very little virgin forests remain in the country, other than in high altitude and remote areas (Ji 1990).  In the Giant Panda's highly diverse habitat of south-central China, less than 10 percent of the forests remain in pristine condition (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  The destruction of these forests has been going on for centuries.  During the 19th century, Pere Armand David lamented its destruction: 
    From one year's end to another, one hears the hatchet and the axe cutting the most beautiful trees.  The destruction of these primitive forests, of which there are only fragments in all of China, progresses with unfortunate speed.  They will never be replaced.  With the great trees will disappear a multitude of shrubs and other plants which cannot survive except in their shade; also all the animals, small and large, which need the forest in order to live and perpetuate their species . . . They have the right to life and we annihilate them and brutally make existence impossible for them
                                          Pere Armand David, 1875
     In many parts of China, virtually no natural habitat remains, as centuries of human habitation and agriculture have replaced native vegetation and wildlife.  One can travel for 1,500 miles in east‑central China, for example, and see a landscape covered entirely with agricultural fields and villages, devoid of wildlife (Schaller 1993).  Deforestation caused massive floods in the summer of 1995, when the Yangtze River, the country's longest, flowing from central China east to Shanghai, overflowed its banks.  More than l.3 million people were displaced by the flooding, 900,000 houses collapsed, 2.7 million acres of crops were destroyed and 1,200 lives were lost (AP 1995).  The economic losses were estimated at $4.4 billion.  Each year these floods worsen as development covers the region, removing all natural flood controls (AP 1995).  The last forests of any extent in China can be found in the northeast, and in 1987, fires destroyed 18 million acres (an area the size of Scotland) as well as 12 million acres in adjacent Russia (Schaller 1993). 
     Pere David's Deer (Elaphurus davidianus), named for its discoverer, and was once common in the northern forests and marshes.  Hunting nearly eliminated the species, and to prevent its extinction, Chinese emperors kept the surviving population in a walled imperial hunting park near Beijing for more than 1,000 years.  Even this population was killed by soldiers and villagers in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, however; fortunately, some had been taken to England and kept by the Duke of Bedford on his estate (Schaller 1993).  In 1985, 22 of these deer were returned from captive populations to the same walled park in China, now reduced from 150 square miles to 440 acres (Schaller 1993).  Several other herds have been reintroduced elsewhere in China, numbering some 600 animals (MacKinnon 1996).  
     Reverence for nature in China dates back many thousands of years and is an integral part of the culture of this ancient country. It may now be reemerging.  The 1979 Forest Law contained strict regulations on logging and required 40 percent forest cover in the mountains and 30 percent nationwide.  This was strengthened in 1988 with a ban on logging in Yunnan and Sichuan, and legal protection was accorded to 389 plant and 206 animal species (Geatz 1999, Mittermeier et al. 1999).  Reserves are being set aside throughout the country, increasing from 44 in 1956 to 600 in 1991, with a goal of 800 reserves protecting 5 percent of the country (Schaller 1993).  This is indeed laudable in the most populous country on earth, and this eleventh-hour commitment is preserving many remnants of the once diverse and abundant natural heritage. 
     In practice, however, logging and firewood cutting tend to far exceed reforestation or preservation of forests in reserves or parks.  Heavy livestock grazing by herders, who also clear forests for pasture, is devastating delicate forest habitats (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  Logging trucks carrying the trunks of the last remaining stands of old-growth forest can be seen in many areas.  These deforested areas do not tend to regenerate because fires and grazing by goats kill the saplings (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  During the late 1990s, The Nature Conservancy began a major project to study the biodiversity of the southern province of Yunnan, whose ecosystems range from alpine to subtropical forest (Geatz 1999).  Certain tribes of this region have a strong tradition of conservation, and the provincial government has welcomed the help of this organization in helping to protect their natural heritage.  Its 2000 report, "Conservation and Development Master Plan for Northwest Yunnan," includes recommendations for the protection of biodiversity, regional planning and resource development to provide ideas for non-destructive economic projects, such as growing plants for medicinal and ornamental purposes as an export commodity and developing ecotourism for this spectacular region (Geatz 1999, The Nature Conservancy 2000). 
     The future of China's forests and its tremendous biological diversity are greatly affected by its enormous human population of more than 1.2 billion people, whose growing needs encourage heavy hunting of its depleted deer and ungulate populations and large livestock herds, as well as excessive tree cutting for firewood (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  Various international conservation organizations are working to help China in assessing its diversity and the threats to it, and to encourage enforcement of its 1982 Constitution, which states that the nation must protect and improve its environment and ecosystems, prevent pollution and protect precious animals and plants (Mittermeier et al. 1999).
     Asia's beautiful pheasants and partridges are disappearing rapidly as their forests are cut and many are hunted for meat.  Partridges and pheasants are found from the Himalayas to sea level tropical forests throughout most of Asia. They have declined dramatically, however.  Of 22 species of Asian partridges, 15 species, or 68 percent, are listed by BirdLife International in Birds to Watch 2: The World List of Threatened Birds (Collar et al. 1994).  An even higher degree of threat is suffered by the many spectacular pheasants.  Of the 52 species of Asian pheasants, 38 species, or 73 percent, are threatened by the destruction of forests and hunting by the same authorities (Collar et al. 1994).  Some endangered Himalayan pheasants include the Tibetan Eared Pheasant (Crossoptilon harmani), White Eared-pheasant (Crossoptilon crossoptilon), Cheer Pheasant (Catreus wallichi) and Elliot's Pheasant (Syrmaticus ellioti) (Collar et al. 1994).  They show a great variety in their colorful and iridescent plumages, rivaling birds-of-paradise in beauty.  Their relatively large size and brilliant plumage make them vulnerable to hunters, and they have not been studied intensively in the wild to determine habitat size and other requirements for their survival.  Very few species have been protected in parks and reserves.
     The mixed hardwood forests that once cloaked the Himalayas, studded in many areas by native rhododendrons, have been decimated during this century.  Some 57 Asian rhododendrons are listed by the 1997 IUCN Red List Plants.  The deforested steep slopes are now prone to erosion by the monsoon rains that arrive annually.  Heavy rains bring huge landslides and floods.  Tree cutting, primarily by people gathering firewood or clearing land for agriculture, has been particularly severe in the Indian, Pakistani and Nepalese Himalayas.  The once unbroken stands of oak and pine have become fragmented and totally absent in many areas.  Human populations have risen over the past century to levels far above carrying capacity of this delicate region.
     The Ganges River, which flooded only once every 50 years prior to deforestation, now floods every few years since the Himalayan forests that retained the water throughout the years have been logged (Lean and Hinrichsen 1992).  Only Bhutan has preserved the majority of its forests, which are crucial to the survival of many species extinct elsewhere in the Himalayas.    Tigers, Asian Black Bears, Himalayan Tahr (Hemitragus hemlahicus), Red Pandas,  Golden Leaf Monkeys (Trachypithecus geei), and Tibetan Macaques (Macaca thibetana) are among the many mammals endangered by the loss of Himalayan forests.  The Woolly Flying Squirrel (Eupetaurus cinereus), the largest squirrel species in the world, has just been rediscovered in northern Pakistan after being thought extinct for 70 years (Walters 1995).  Four feet from its nose to the end of its tail, this squirrel may be able to glide distances of up to 1,000 feet (Walters 1995).  Peter Zahler, a Cornell University zoologist, traveled to Pakistan in 1994.  In a remote valley where this squirrel was rumored to exist, a local villager, who found one in a mountain cave, supplied a live animal in a bag.  Zahler studied it for a short time, photographed and measured it, and then hiked 3 hours up the mountain and released the squirrel at its capture site (Walters 1995).  This squirrel has been designated Endangered by the 1996 IUCN Red List Animals.  This exciting rediscovery is tempered by the threats from deforestation and overgrazing in its mountain habitat.  Local people report that it is solitary and active throughout the year, climbing conifer trees to feed (Nowak 1999).  The Woolly Flying Squirrel is not hunted, but the conifers on which it depends are being cut at a great rate, causing it to decline over the past decade (Nowak 1999).  Its total population is estimated at fewer than 2,500 and falling as a result of habitat loss (Nowak 1999).  (Photos of this squirrel appear in Nowak 1999.)

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