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Bill McConnell
Associate Director, Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability

Things in the Wolong Nature Reserve are a lot different now than when I first (and last) visited in early summer of 2009. Back then, just a year after the devastating Wenchuan earthquake, reconstruction efforts were swinging into high gear but most of the valley’s thousands of residents were still sheltering in temporary blue-roofed portable buildings and tents. Now, almost everyone has moved into the new housing erected along the highway that parallels the Pitiao River, save for a few hardy souls who remain on their farms in the hills.

This week my colleague Jindong and I have been meeting with small groups of residents to talk about how this landscape has changed over the past several decades, using newly available high-resolution satellite images from 2010 and from 1965. The groups have been making maps and explaining the who, what, where, when, and why of the changes that have taken place since the valley was demarcated for the protection of the giant panda.

We’ve asked them what they think the landscape will look like 10 years from now if things keep up the way they are going. Then we asked how they would like Wolong to look in ten years, and what it would take to make that happen. We’ve had the same discussion with staff at the Hetaoping research center, who are responsible for monitoring the reserve’s wild panda population, and for the reintroduction of captive-bred pandas to the wild. Following the focus group meetings, we were joined by Jack Liu to do follow-up interviews about some of the more contentious issues, such as how to balance people’s desire to keep livestock with the reserve’s mandate to protect and restore the pandas’ habitat.

The last part of the trip was a meeting with the director of the reserve, Hemin Zhang. This was an opportunity to “close the loop” by sharing the views of local residents, scientists, and reserve officials about what has happened in the past and—most important—about what ought to happen in the future, and how that can come to pass. The work will also inform ongoing research that will use these varied visions to develop modeling scenarios that can help understand the likely consequences of various policy choices. These might include the continuation of conservation policies aimed at reducing and reversing human impacts on panda habitat, such as agricultural ‘set-aside’ programs that return cropland to forest and electricity subsidies that encourage people to stop using firewood. The response from the participants has been enthusiastic and we believe that this new form of dialogue will lead to a future that ensures the survival of the endangered panda, while securing a better life for the valley’s people.