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Scientists Gauge Recovery of Panda Forest

Feb 24, 2014 03:14 PM EST

China's Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 left the Wolong Nature Reserve, which is home to the endangered giant panda, devastated. Sections of forest and bamboo grove were lost due to landslides, erosions and sections of earth splitting open. Usually, damage from earthquakes is assessed using remote sensing, which can be limited in scope. Scientists from Michigan State University and in China went through the forest, in a unique "boots-on-the-ground" study of the reserve to assess recovery from the earthquake.

"Across the world, people are investing billions of dollars to protect valuable natural areas, as well as making enormous investments in restoring such areas after natural disasters," said Jianguo "Jack" Liu, director of MSU's Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, and a study co-author. "It's important we develop ways to understand the fine points of how well recovery efforts are working, so we can direct resources in the right places effectively."

Jindong Zhang, a post-doctoral research associate in CSIS, spent several months over a four-year time span collecting data on the recovery of the park. The very dangerous task produced results that were then compared with satellite images of the reserve, according to the press release announcing the findings.

The researchers found that much of the reserve was on the road to recovery and that the $17 million spent by China to replant native trees and bamboo was helping areas that were particularly affected.

"Our evaluation of the Wolong restoration project will have a guiding role in the restoration scheme areas across the entire area affected by the earthquake," Zhang said. "Our study indicated that forest restoration after natural disasters should not only consider the forest itself, but also take into account the animals inhabiting the ecosystem and human livelihoods."

Local residents were doing much of the replanting and restoration work. This means the forest was making the strongest come back in areas that were surrounding local villages, areas where pandas often avoid. The researchers have yet to understand if this is a good or bad thing, as it also helps to ensure local residents don't venture into "far-flung panda-friendly forests."

"We wanted to know if the benefit of this effort was matching up to the investment - which was significant," Hull said. "It's an important question, and the world needs good ways to evaluate it as natural disasters are growing in frequency and intensity." 

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