Panda zone: Reality check, please

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Zoning laws are becoming a common strategy to balance environmental protection and human needs, but those laws mean little without enforcement.

“Zoning ordinances are rarely evaluated for their ability to make positive changes using empirical data on both human and biodiversity characteristics,” says Jianguo (Jack) Liu, chair in sustainability at Michigan State University. “It’s critical to examine both human and natural systems to see if ordinances are working and understand what changes might be needed.”

The study, published in the current edition of Biological Conservation, shows that zoning is helping protect endangered giant pandas in China’s Wolong Nature Reserve but also reveals critical weaknesses.


“Zoning everywhere, in China and in the United States, is about drawing lines on a piece of paper. But the big challenge is always how to bring those lines to life,” says doctoral candidate Vanessa Hull, the paper’s lead author.

“The people who live in that landscape can’t see it and there are no fences. We’re showing that zoning is an effective tool for controlling some human impacts but not others.”

Increasingly, governments are turning to zoning ordinances to protect habitat while still allowing people access to a livelihood. People in Wolong historically have farmed, chopped down trees for fuel and construction, kept livestock, and accommodated tourists who stream in to see pandas in breeding centers.

Pandas are picky about their habitat—needing gentle slopes, moderate elevation, and plenty of bamboo to munch. While other species that contribute to Wolong’s rich biodiversity benefit from conservation efforts, the charismatic pandas drive much of the policy there.

Wolong has been zoned into three areas: First, the core area strictly limits human activity to minimize human impact on pandas. Second, the experimental area thrives with homes, businesses and roads. In between is a buffer zone of controlled human access intended to acknowledge that it’s hard to declare a forest pristine if a hotel is right next door.

Hull says that zoning in Wolong is protecting some but not all prime panda real estate. The study also is helping show where improvements are needed, including:

  • Much of the buffer zone is important for pandas.
  • The rules of the buffer zone are ambiguous. Without clear rules, land use managers can’t rely on clear guidelines when fielding requests for variances.
  • Even small instances of disregard for zoning ordinances—especially in the case of roaming livestock—can have significant effects on panda habitat.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA, MSU’s Distinguished Fellowship Program, the William and Evelyn Taylor International Engagement Program, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and the State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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