If pandas weren’t so darn cute, we wouldn’t be up in the clouds at the edge of a mountain ravine slick with moss and mud, clinging for life to shoots of bamboo.
And get this: There is almost zero chance that we’ll actually see a panda. We keep our eyes on the ground, not just to keep from falling, but because the best we can hope for is to discover panda droppings (and even the chances of that aren’t so hot).
“To be honest, I’ve been working in these mountains for 20 years and I’ve never seen a panda in the wild,” says Dai Bo, 43, a wildlife biologist with China’s Forestry Ministry who’s wearing a camouflage jacket and hiking boots and has a zoom-lens Canon around his neck, just in case.
Dai is leading a six-person team through the fog-shrouded mountains of Sichuan province to conduct the first census in a decade of China’s endangered panda population. Although Dai’s specialty is predatory birds, all wildlife researchers are being pressed into service whether they love pandas or not, and one does sense a certain panda fatigue.
“If you’re in Sichuan province, you’ve got to study pandas,” Dai says with resignation.
The last survey, conducted in 2000-'01, showed just 1,596 pandas living in the wild in China.
Since then, China’s breakneck growth and construction of roads, railroads and utility lines have driven the panda population into isolated mountain enclaves, where they are vulnerable to inbreeding and starvation.
Over the next year, more than 100 people will fan out across 12,000 square miles of treacherous mountain passes in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, stalking the giant panda or its droppings.
On a recent day, a few census workers convene 120 miles southwest of Chengdu in Sanhe, a mountain village where corn hangs drying from the rafters of wooden houses and women carry baskets of mountain herbs on their backs.
After a night in an unheated guesthouse with concrete floors, the workers divide into groups. Dai’s team takes off in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, bouncing down a dirt road to the base of a mountain called Daping, part of the Xiangling range.
A 72-year-old villager, a stocky man carrying a sickle to cut through the underbrush, serves as a guide. He scrambles uphill like a goat, pausing from time to time to roll and smoke a cigarette, looking down with contempt at the scientists and journalists laboring to catch up.
Underfoot, the ground is dense with moldering wood and moss. The slopes are lush with firs, cedars, palms and ficus and plenty of good things to eat: wild kiwis, hazelnuts and fire berries from the pyracantha bush. But pandas prefer bamboo, which they consume in copious quantities.
Panda droppings are pale green and look a little like bundles of twigs. When the team finds them, a junior researcher accompanying Dai does a maneuver that any U.S. dog owner would recognize, grabbing it with his hand inside a plastic bag that he then turns inside out and ties shut. With a handheld GPS device, the team also records the precise locations where excrement is found.
Each panda’s droppings are a signature, varying according to how thoroughly the animal chomps the bamboo. Back at the lab, researchers extract and measure the stalks of bamboo. By studying the samples and their locations, the scientists can get a rough idea of how many pandas are in a particular area. For this census, they will also conduct DNA analysis of the poop.
“It’s much harder to do a census of pandas than of people. With a human census, people talk to people. You have no other way of communicating with the pandas,” says Hong Mingsheng, one of the researchers.
On Daping mountain, the bamboo grows as thick as a man’s thumb and is closely spaced like the bars of a cage. The guide swings his sickle to clear a path, but it’s no use: Runners wrap around our feet and prickly branches grab at our hair.
“The bamboo is too dense here. No good for big animals,” says the villager, Yang Pingfang.
It turns out to be a frustrating day. In more than nine hours of hiking, the team finds no panda droppings, only the excrement of a black bear, which looks like spilled coffee grounds.
“Anybody who has experienced our work knows it is not that glamorous. It is sometimes boring and lonely,” says junior researcher Yang Yi, 30, who estimates he will cover nearly 900 miles over the next year for the panda census.
The results won’t be published until 2013 at the earliest. The scientists hope to find that the population has rebounded thanks to intensive conservation efforts.
Since the 1980s, the number of nature reserves where hunting, trapping and logging are banned has increased to 60 from 13. A 2006 survey by the Chinese Academy of Sciences found 66 pandas in the Wanglang reserve in Sichuan province, double an earlier estimate.
At nightfall, waiting for the jeep to pick them up, the scientists chat with villagers, who during the day had said they seldom see pandas in the wild. Their stories seem to grow more fanciful with the consumption of baijiu, the strong white alcohol favored in the Chinese countryside.
“Oh yes, I saw a panda sitting in a tree. It fell down right in front of me,” says Feng Quanwu, 50. “We see pandas more often now, so we think there must be more than in the 1980s.”
The first organized census of pandas in the 1970s counted about 2,500 in the wild. In the 1980s, the count dropped to 1,114.
Sarah Bexell, director of conservation research at the Chengdu Research Base, where pandas are bred in captivity for reintroduction into the wild, says this type of census is “at best a guesstimate” and that she doubts that the numbers are increasing.
“There is no way it could have gone up,” says Bexell, who is also a research scholar at the University of Denver. “The Chinese government is trying so terribly hard to protect their national treasure, but until humans globally get our population under control and our consumption habits under control, it’s impossible to save wildlife.”
She’s not optimistic about the future of the panda and says that even captive breeding facilities are “just a game, waylaying the reality.”
The panda is often called a living fossil, having inhabited the planet since the days of the saber-toothed tiger. It lives a hermit-like existence in adulthood, avoiding other pandas except during breeding.
One reason the panda is so vulnerable is that bamboo dies off periodically after blooming and pandas so dislike people that they would starve rather than cross an inhabited area to find a fresh source of food.
When Sichuan residents see pandas, it is usually at the reserve, which on a weekday morning teemed with excited schoolchildren. The base occasionally hosts students from mountain villages.
“They have pandas in their backyard,” Bexell says, “but they come here so they can actually see them.”
John Lee of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.