When giant pandas moved off the endangered species list in 2016–from “endangered” to “vulnerable“–it was because China helped protect some of the animal’s habitat and panda numbers rose. Now the government is working on a bigger step: a massive new giant panda national park that will be roughly the same size as Massachusetts, or three times larger than Yosemite.
The park, which is scheduled to open in 2020, will sprawl across 10,476 square miles in the western provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu, linking up dozens of smaller protected areas. Right now, pandas live in 30 isolated areas; roads and other new development over the last couple of decades have cut off former swaths of continuous habitat.
By connecting 67 reserves, the new park will make it more likely that the species can survive. Pandas don’t breed often–each female is only fertile for a day or a day and a half each year, and might give birth once every two years–and as populations have become more fragmented, the chances of inbreeding have risen. In some patches of habitat, there may be as few as 10 bears.
Climate change is also shifting where bamboo can grow, and pandas, which can eat as much as 40 pounds of bamboo in a day (and eat little else), will need to be able to move with their food. Over the next 80 years, more than a third of panda habitat may become too hot for bamboo to grow. The plans for the park are “setting up a network of places where they can eat,” says Robert Tansey, a senior advisor on China for The Nature Conservancy. “The Chinese are thinking specifically about where they can have passageways or tunnels so the pandas can take advantage not only of specific areas, but are able to traverse and get to other set-off or protected areas.”
The park is unusual both in terms of its scale and complexity. There are 170,000 people currently living within the boundaries of the new park. Some may have to relocate, particularly in one county where population density is highest (China’s authoritarian government has little issue relocating people who are in the way of major projects). In other cases, people may have to adapt to live under new restrictions that protect habitat. The government plans to allocate some of the park’s budget to help build an ecotourism industry with new jobs for people living in the area.
In 2017, The Nature Conservancy took a team of Chinese planners to visit parks in California, including Yosemite, to help as they planned the new park. At a wildlife refuge near Sacramento, they saw how different parcels of land were connected with pathways for wildlife, and how those outside the park also helped–rice farmers in the area, for example, now leave out vegetation longer than they would have otherwise to support migrating birds.
“You can’t just shut off a species or an ecosystem, you’ve got multiple uses and users,” says Tansey. “You need to find ways for people and organizations to work together so you have what you want with shared benefits down the road.” Some protected areas already navigate between even denser urban development and nature; in the Santa Monica Mountains, for example, where mountain lions live next to Los Angeles neighborhoods, a bridge may be built to help the animals cross an eight-lane freeway.
For China, the giant panda park is one of several new national parks, and it’s also coming after 20 years of discussions about wildlife corridors between disconnected panda habitat. Xi Jinping, China’s president, has championed the idea of a national park system. Without the panda park, the area would “almost surely” be developed, Tansey says. He compares it to what might have happened without a national park system in the United States.
“If you had not set aside wildlife refuges, national parks, other forms of protected areas that are designated and managed by the government, I think it would be reasonable to say that those places would have been developed–that you would have a five-star hotel where you woke up and looked out at Old Faithful 100 meters away, or something,” he says. “That’s the nature of the profit motive.”
The panda park will help bring protection for thousands of other, sometimes less charismatic species, like the takin, an animal that looks a little like a combination of a moose, bear, and goat. For pandas, it may help populations grow. There were once perhaps 100,000 pandas in Asia. Now the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the organization that produces the endangered species list, believes there are 1,864 pandas. By 2025, China hopes to nudge that up to 2,000.