Horses threaten panda population
Pandas rely upon a specific diet and habitat. They typically live far away from human populations on gently sloping hillsides. Their diet is made up of exclusively bamboo. China invests billions to protect its panda habitat and conserve the 1,600 remaining endangered supported by this habitat. China has instituted many conservation programs limiting the timber harvesting that had greatly threatened this habitat. But now it seems that with the timber harvesters are under control the bamboo is still being devastated before the pandas can get it.
Vanessa Hull, a doctoral student at Michigan State University, who has been researching the pandas over the last seven years, has found that horses have been infiltrating the bamboo buffet.
"It didn't take particular panda expertise to know that something was amiss when we'd come upon horse-affected bamboo patches. They were in the middle of nowhere and it looked like someone had been in there with a lawn mower," Hull said.
Alarmed by the increasing devastation, Hull learned that keeping a horse in this region serves a similar function as maintaining a bank account. Because horses are prohibited from grazing in designated grazing areas, to prevent them from competing for food with cattle, some farmers have been letting horses graze unattended in forests. When these horse-keeping farmers need cash, they track down their horses in the forest and sell them.
Eventually, some Wolong farmers, though not traditionally horse-keepers, learned from horse-keeping friends who lived outside of the reserve that they too could cash in by keeping horses--and letting them loose to graze unattended in Wolong. Where, unfortunately, they would compete for food with pandas.
Over time, the popularity of this practice soared. In 1998, only 25 horses lived in Wolong. By 2008, 350 horses lived there in 20 to 30 herds.
To understand the scope of the problem, Hull and her colleagues put the same type of GPS collars they were using to track pandas on one horse in each of four herds they studied. Then, over a year they compared the activity of the horses with that of three collared adult pandas in some of the same areas, and combined resulting data with habitat data.
The researchers discovered that the galloping gourmets are indeed big on bamboo--and are drawn to the same sunny, gently sloped spots as pandas. Pandas and horses eat about the same amount of bamboo, but a herd of more than 20 horses created veritable feeding frenzies, destroying areas that the reserve was established to protect.
Continue reading at the National Science Foundation, Research.gov.
Panda eating bamboo image via Shutterstock.