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Sizzling Bamboo Shoots and Footprints: Tracking the Giant Panda…
by -- May 28th, 2014

 

Guest bloggers Zoe Jewell and Sky Alibhai are visiting research scientists at the Nicholas School of the Environment and at the JMP division of the SAS Institute in Cary, NC. They founded WildTrack (www.wildtrack.org) in response to interest in the research community for cost-effective, non-invasive and sustainable methods of wildlife monitoring.

We huddled together at dawn on the bitingly cold and slippery slopes of the eastern Himalayas with our Duke PhD student Binbin Li, on the trail of the Giant panda. Wearing slightly whimsical standard-issue Chinese government panda costumes, we gazed intently at a pile of steaming panda poop.

It wasn’t so much the warmth that beckoned, but the slightly sizzling bamboo fragments laid out in front of us.

Pandas feed almost exclusively on bamboo, and their feces reflect this.  Until recently, Chinese scientists would attempt to identify individual Giant pandas by the ‘bite size’ of the bamboo fragments in their feces.

Sky with two Chinese colleagues disguised in the regulation Chinese panda kit. Credit: WildTrack

Sky with two Chinese colleagues disguised in the regulation Chinese panda kit. Credit: WildTrack

There’s no shortage of massive challenges in conservation biology, but you might imagine that assessing the numbers and distribution of Giant pandas isn’t one of them.  Those charismatic black eyes and cute tufty bear ears are set in one of the most iconic faces in the world – surely this, their size and lumbering  gait make them a cinch to locate and identify?

Adult male Giant Panda at Ya’an captive breeding centre. Credit: WildTrack.

Adult male Giant Panda at Ya’an captive breeding centre. Credit: WildTrack.

Not so fast!  For a start, the Giant pandas prefer to hang out on the perilously steep slopes and they’re very shy.  They climb well and can hide out in the trees.  But with only 1,600 left in the wild, the Chinese government is working hard to protect their pandas, who represent a global ‘brand’ for conservation.  These uber-cute ambassadors earn valuable international goodwill in foreign zoos, and bring in considerable revenue.

Now China’s commitment to their conservation is clear – there are not only several successful captive-breeding programmes bristling with high-security cameras,  but also 64 Panda reserves in the mountains of south-west China.

The beautiful mountains of south-west China. Credit: WildTrack.

The beautiful mountains of south-west China. Credit: WildTrack.

But why expend limited conservation resources on a species that some have argued is doomed by it’s incredibly specialized diet?  Well, we believe that in focusing on iconic species – in this case the Giant panda –  we could protect a huge number of sympatric species in this biodiverse and endemically-rich part of the world – from the red panda down to the humblest (and probably yet to be discovered) soil bacterium or fungus which might one day be of great medicinal value.

So, the sticky question remains – how can we keep track of Giant pandas?  We need to expand our focus from captive breeding to successful reintroduction into protected areas.  One of the key requirements for this mission will be effective individual monitoring.

At WildTrack, our research interest lies in developing non-invasive monitoring techniques. We’ve developed a footprint identification technique (FIT) that can identify endangered animals at the species, individual, sex and age-class levels with high accuracy.  It’s cost-effective, non-invasive and sustainable.

Now it so happens that Giant pandas have spectacularly lovely and complex feet. One of their carpal bones, the sesamoid, has evolved as a kind of opposable digit, akin to a thumb, that’s used to grasp and manipulate bamboo with great dexterity.  So their footprints show five toe pads, the extra ‘thumb’ pad, and the heel pad.

A Giant panda cub, 18 months old, showing her front foot.  You can see the five toes, extra ‘thumb’ pad, and heel pad. Credit: WildTrack.

A Giant panda cub, 18 months old, showing her front foot. You can see the five toes, extra ‘thumb’ pad, and heel pad. Credit: WildTrack.

Giant panda footprint in snow, showing extra ‘thumb’ pad. Credit: WildTrack.

Giant panda footprint in snow, showing extra ‘thumb’ pad. Credit: WildTrack.

So when the Chinese Conservation and Research Center for the Giant panda (CCRCGP) invited us to visit to see if FIT could be used to monitor pandas we jumped at the chance!

Our first stop was the world famous Wolong Giant panda research centre near Chengdu in south-west China.  This involved a white-knuckle ride up a perilous Himalayan road, still largely collapsed from the catastrophic earthquake of 2008.

At Wolong they’re preparing captive-bred animals for reintroduction to the wild and we wanted to find footprints in natural field conditions.  We’d been told that this would be difficult given the deep leaf litter of the bamboo forests, but with a little perseverance and the help of excellent local trackers, we were able to collect beautiful snow footprints on our first day.

Now footprints generally have a strange magical quality – they only appear when you look for them!  We’ve lost count of the number of field biologists who have told us ‘We’d love to use footprints for monitoring, but we never see them’.  As our bushmen tutors in Africa used to tell us over and over again, you have to look down, and open your eyes.  It seems so obvious, but it’s a special and ancient skill of seeing and deducing from observation that is exhibited by indigenous trackers in different parts of the world.

After Wolong we visited the new Ya’an captive breeding centre, to train local researchers in FIT data acquisition techniques.  Thanks to their extensive field experience, training was quick – within a couple of days they were ready to go.  With a dedication and determination we found wherever we went, they wanted to get started right away, and just a few weeks later we are now nearing completion of our FIT Giant panda footprint training dataset.

Monitoring the Giant Panda in China using the footprint identification technique (FIT) (Credit: Wildtrackfootprints)


Our final week in China was spent in Beijing, where we joined up with Prof. Stuart Pimm from the Pimm group at the Nicholas School.  Stuart was in China to talk on biodiversity loss, and to help Chinese scientists understand how to communicate their science and get it published – a topic of huge interest in China.  Together we shared our findings and views on big issues in conservation with eminent scientists at the Beijing Forestry Institute, Beijing University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

So, now that our initial panda footprint database is almost up and running, what are the next steps?

Firstly we’ll extract an FIT algorithm from this dataset. This consists of the variables that can discriminate individuals, sex and age-class in our FIT model.

We use the amazingly versatile JMP data visualization software from the SAS Institute, where we’ve spent many years developing and refining our software.

The second stage will be to visit the Giant pandas again to run validation trials with the new algorithm, using known free-ranging individuals in field conditions.

Lastly, we’ll hand over the technology to our Chinese counterparts to use for landscape-scale monitoring in the 64 panda reserves – and growing in number each year.

Map showing the remaining and fragmented Giant panda distribution.  The Qinling mountains officially divide China north from south.  This has a distinctly practical effect.  South of the line, there’s considered no need for indoor heating, and (visitors beware!) windows are left open even with temperatures in the 30’s F.  Image credit: WWF.

Map showing the remaining and fragmented Giant panda distribution. The Qinling mountains officially divide China north from south. This has a distinctly practical effect. South of the line, there’s considered no need for indoor heating, and (visitors beware!) windows are left open even with temperatures in the 30’s F. Image credit: WWF.

This project is an exciting and unique opportunity to bring non-invasive and cost-effective techniques to China to benefit Giant pandas and their associated ecosystems.

Duke’s new Kunshan University  (DKU), near Shanghai, will soon be open.  All our expertise at the Nicholas School will be perfectly positioned to take up new opportunities for conservation outreach and collaboration in this part of the world.

FIT is also being used to monitor the highly-endangered Amur tiger in north-east China. If we bring our new technologies (including FIT, drones and DNA from footprints) to the table with Chinese panda and tiger expertise, we could revolutionize the way conservation monitoring is done.

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