Field Course to Wanglang National Nature Reserve | Duke Kunshan University

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Field Course to Wanglang National Nature Reserve


By Kelley Reardon, photo copyright to Kelley Reardon

“The mountains are calling and I must go” 
-John Muir

Photo by Nie Chao Photo by Nie Chao

Delicious hotpot, majestic mountain views, and friendly local nature reserve staff greeted iMEP students as they first arrived in Sichuan province. After settling in to a beautiful cabin at the Wanglang National Nature Reserve, the students were quickly swept out of their comfort zone. The start of the field trip involved intensive hiking through the reserve. Along the way, students learned how to conduct a basic ecological survey by setting up a 20 by 20-meter plot and taking measurements related to the vegetation and signs of both wild and domestic animals. The class spotted a Western Chinese mountain salamander, multiple blue eared pheasants, and orchids that are unique to the area on their hikes.

The Director of Wanglang, Mr. Zhang Lianjun, shared his wisom of the reserve with the iMEP students. He explained how in the early 1950s, the reserve was mainly used by the Forest Beaureau and was actually not meant for protection, but rather as a resource to collect lumber. This changed in 1955, when researchers and conservationists at Wanglang helped to persuade the government to set aside the reserve for protection.

Wanglang was initially a forest reserve, not a giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) reserve. However, it is now known as one of the most famous areas for giant panda research and protection in the world. In addition to Sichuan, where Wanglang is located, there are two other provinces known for pandas: Shaanxi and Gansu.

The nature reserve staff at Wanglang have a lot of work to do besides panda monitoring. They also collect data related to the monitoring of plants, other mammals, amphibians, and insects. In addition to research, the staff is responsible for patrolling for poachers as well as for people illegally digging up medicinal herbs in the reserve.

Other projects that the nature reserve staff are currently working on include community development, environmental education, and eco-tourism programs. These involve honey bee businesses and sustainable Chinese herb systems. Their future plans include the expansion of monitoring projects, establishing a world-class research platform, promoting environmental education and sustainable resource use, and solving conflicts between livestock grazing and protection. Mr. Zhang said that the dream for Wanglang is to become an international model for conservation.

After spending the first few days of the field course hiking and learning about the ecological aspects of a nature reserve, iMEP students visited a township of the Baima people just outside of the reserve. The Baimai people are a Tibetan minority group. Students practiced conducting pre-surveys in the community households to assess the economic impacts and challenges that may face a community living so close to a nature reserve.


Photo by Kelley Reardon

One of the most notable problems in and surrounding Wanglang Nature Reserve is that livestock are infringing on the habitat of wildlife, especially pandas. This is because the livestock love to eat bamboo, which is also a staple of the giant panda’s diet. Since a hydropower dam was installed in the valley just outside of Wanglang, villagers in and surrounding the Baima township let their livestock (mainly horses and cattle) graze free-range around the reserve. In the past ten years, the quality and amount of bamboo in the area has severely decreased due to this practice.

Research by Professor Binbin Li here at Duke Kunshan has shown that the livestock grazing has a negative impact on bamboo in the region. However, this massive problem remains to be solved. Professor Li suggests that free-range grazing on a smaller scale could help to start mitigating the problem.

In some instances, natural barriers prevent livestock from crossing over into panda habitat. During the field course, iMEP students were able to see this issue first-hand.

On one hike through the bamboo forest, students saw that the bamboo did not have any leaves, were thin, and were tinged yellow. After crossing the natural barrier of a river, students could see a stark contrast from the bamboo they had just seen moments before. The bamboo on the new side of the river was teeming with leaves and looked green and strong.


As the students ascended the mountain covered in dense green bamboo, they began to see signs of giant panda and other wildlife. Fresh panda scat and hairs of takin and panda were found along the trek. These small but significant signs stimulate hope and inspire iMEP students to work towards a solution to the livestock grazing issues in and around Wanglang.

In the final days at the reserve, students traveled to surrounding communities to learn more about eco-tourism. For instance, they visited a company created by the locals that produces “panda honey”. Since the honey is providing a more environmentally-friendly means of livelihood for people than other livelihoods (such as livestock grazing), it is marketed as “panda friendly” so that it can be sold at a higher price.

Students also visited Laohegou, another nature reserve, where The Nature Conservancy previously had an office. The station has recently been taken over by the Paradise Foundation, another prestigious non-governmental organization (NGO) in China. Students listened to the staff describe strategies for land trust management. Near to this reserve there is a mead factory, which uses the “panda honey” to produce mead.


From hiking in the breathtaking mountains of Wanglang to learning about economic development in surrounding communities, iMEP students were able to form a comprehensive understanding of the rewards and challenges of working in a nature reserve. All of the students were able to take home valuable skills from the course, such as collecting ecological data, conducting socioeconomic surveys, and managing a land trust or nature reserve. This hands-on trip was both eye-opening and inspiring for the class and served as the perfect way to end the semester before the students parted ways for their summer plans. In fact, three iMEP students will spend the summer performing research related to livestock grazing and community development in and around Wanglang. The students aim to apply what they have learned in their classes to make positive changes that can simultaneously foster economic development, celebrate the local culture, and protect the unique wildlife of the region.