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Pan Wenshi: decades in the wilderness for the endangered wildlife

APR . 05 2017

Peking University, April 3 , 2017: For 36 years in the remotest areas, Pan Wenshi, the renowned biologist and professor of Peking University’s School of Life Sciences, has been devoting himself to the study and protection of endangered species such as the giant panda, the white-headed langur and the Chinese white dolphin, probing the complex relationship between land, population and wildlife. Eighty-year old as he is now, Pan still holds tight to his position in the wilderness, trying to find the answer to ecological civilization through nature. Recently Pan shared his experiences in wildlife protection in an interview with Xinhua, which is his first media interview since 20 years ago.

The giant pandas: it’s always been my dream to be with them

The story between Pan and his beloved pandas dates back to 1980, the first year when he came to Wolong, Sichuan. Since then he has been living in the wilderness with them for 16 years, still holding the deepest affection as passionately as ever. Though bruised hard by this arduous journey, Pan managed to prove that nothing was too insuperable to be overcome by fortitude.

On March 20th,1982, while tracking pandas in the Wolong mountain, Pan fell down from a steep cliff at the height of two-hundred meters. His anus was seriously injured by the fierce collision, making him unable to eat anything except a spoonful of honey and an egg to sustain his life. However, only a month later, Pan made his way to a 2900-meter-high mountain to outfit pandas with radio tracking collars. When asked what motivated his perseverance, he said the answer was simple, “Only because it has always been my long-lasting dream to work in the wilderness with the animals I study.”

Of course, passion alone is far from enough to make a qualified scientist. What’s equally important is the courage to stick to the truth. In the 1980s, the argument that “bamboo flowering makes pandas die” put forward by some scholars set off a boom to save pandas nationwide. Large amount of money was poured into the construction of feeding farms, and pandas which originally inhabited the wilderness were driven into these farms.

But as a professional with decades of accumulated experience, Pan knew that bamboo flowering wouldn’t lead to the deaths of pandas, as such phenomenon occurred regularly during the past 2 million years and pandas weren’t extinct in spite of them. Though nobody took his words seriously, he insisted on clarifying in a report that the root cause of pandas’ endangerment was human deforestation and artificially breeding pandas would even exacerbate the situation. Fortunately, the government took his advice and further losses were prevented. Some people have loathed his forthrightness because of this, but Pan said determinedly, ”being anodyne doesn’t make a good scientist.”

Protection of the white-headed langur: the livelihood of people formits foundations

The white-headed langur is a unique species in China. Inhabiting the karst stone areas in Chongzuo, Guangxi, they are widely acknowledged as the rarest monkey and are among the world’s most endangered twenty-five primates. In 1996, sixty-year-old Pan came to Chongzuo along with some postgraduates, delving himself deep into the study of leaf monkeys for the next 20 years.

In the 1960s, due to moor-burning, poaching and deforestation, the ecological system upon which the langur relied was severely devastated. Pan went down into the villages trying to find out the reason of such destruction to the environment, only to be shocked by the abysmal living condition of the villagers. It was then that he finally came to realize that the well-being of the surrounding villagers and the protection of the langur are inextricably linked. “If the livelihood of people cannot be improved, the habitat of the langur will continue to be destructed, which will fall into a vicious cycle.”

In order to prevent the villagers from chopping down more trees, Pan came up with the idea to use alternative energy sources as a surrogate. Through his constant effort, he eventually succeeded in raising about 13.7 million yuan, and devoted it together with his own addition of 10,000 yuan to the infrastructure constructions such as biogas digesters, rural hospitals, drinking-water projects, highways and primary schools etc. He also appealed to the local government to play a more active role in poverty reduction, advocating the plantation of sugarcane instead of rice. Thanks to him, the average income of the Nongguan mountain district soon increased in leaps and bounds. Apart from this, as trees were no longer chopped down, the number of local white-headed langur surged from 96 in 1996 to more than 800 now.     
"We can study the langur at any time in the future, but if we don’t protect the environment right now, the destruction of langurs’ habitat may eventually lead to disasters of human livelihood. That’s why the well-being of humans is always the paramount priority.”

The Chinese white dolphin: protecting them is to protect us human beings

In 2003, considering its geographical advantage for large ship building projects, Sanniang Bay was chosen as a new industrial development zone. The construction of a dockyard was already in the planning when Pan heard that Sanniang Bay might be inhabited by Chinese white dolphins. Pan wasted no time in moving into there with his study group. They spent two years trying to capture every sign of the Chinese white dolphin through thousands of pictures, videos and GPS locating points, finally concluding that the number of them was in a constant increase and they were the healthiest and most productive group of white dolphins in the world. Pan appealed strongly to the local government to shut down this project, contending that it would alter the marine ecology and thus bringing disastrous consequences to the Chinese white dolphin. Eventually he successfully persuaded the local government as well as other enterprises into calling a halt to their projects, saving the lives of hundreds of Chinese white dolphins.

Pan’s efforts not only protected the living environment of Chinese white dolphins, but also benefited the coastal villagers. Their main source of income was the offshore aquaculture oysters, which were extremely sensitive to environmental quality. Exempted from the threats of water pollution, Qinzhou has now become the biggest oyster breeding base, profiting thousands of surrounding villagers.

As far as Pan was concerned, the value of protecting Chinese white dolphins lies in people’s attitude towards eco-civilization. “The advent of eco-civilization is one of the greatest things in the history of human evolution. Protectingthe Chinese white dolphin is to protect our own home, which eventually is to protect ourselves.”

As a well-known biologist, Pan is always asked a same question: what’s the meaning of life? His answer is simple. “Wilderness is where humans derived. If we want to probe the meaning of life, the wilderness is definitely where we should head to.”

Written by: Yin Xin
Edited by: Xu Liangdi
Source: PKU News (in Chinese)