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Learning from pandas: How humans can approach sustainability in tandem with nature

Courtesy of Sue Nichols
Wolong Nature Reserve is home to around 160 pandas. That's about 10% of giant pandas in the wild.


Jack Liu of Michigan State University has spent some two decades studying pandas and people in a remote corner of China. His work has yielded powerful lessons in sustainability.

Liu is a human-environment scientist and a sustainability scholar at MSU, where he directs the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

He joined us today to talk about his panda research and what it means for people outside of the remote Wolong Nature Reserve.

Liu told us he went to the Wolong Nature Reserve to try to understand how humans and wildlife interact, and to learn how to best manage wildlife to ensure the survival of both humans and the natural environment around them.

“The Nature Reserve is for panda conservation,” he said, adding that about 10% of the world's wild pandas live there. That's 150 to 160 pandas, "and also there are about 5,000 local people inside the reserve who depend on the forest and the land for their livelihood.”

This made it the perfect place to study coupled human and natural systems, the connection and relationship between humans and the natural systems of the planet.

Liu told us their first finding was “surprising.” He said you'd usually expect that once an area was established as a nature reserve, the habitat would improve. But that wasn’t the case.

“What we found was the opposite,” Liu said. “We found that the habitat for the pandas actually was getting worse.… Also, inside the reserve, the habitat was worse than outside of the reserve.”

The human population exploded after the reservation’s establishment, he explained, which forced communities there to draw more on their environment.

“You have so many more people, so many more households. Then they need more land, more forest, which happened to be habitat for the pandas. So they have to cut down the forest, and that’s destruction for the panda habitat,” he said.

Liu told us the government and community didn’t believe the results at first. They had devoted so much time, effort and resources to protecting the habitat, “and what reported was so counterintuitive,” he said.

But after an investigation, the government determined Liu's findings were accurate, and asked Liu's team to start looking for solutions.

“From that point on, there was a big turning point,” Liu said.

He said his team worked with the government and local management to implement new policies that would help the people living in the reservation. By providing them with more conservation subsidies, Liu explained, the local people would no longer need to remove trees from the panda habitat to meet their needs.

“People are happier, people live a better life, and then the habitat has also been recovering,” he said.

Liu talks more about his work in our conversation above.

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