After decades of conservation programs, pandas are no longer considered an endangered species in China. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) downlisted pandas from endangered to vulnerable, a move followed by the Chinese government last year, citing a growing population and fewer pressures.
However, this doesn’t mean pandas are out of the woods just yet. Rapid urban development across the country has pushed pandas into a smaller fraction of their historic habitat range, which is particularly concerning given their reliance on bamboo for nourishment. Also, the composition of forests in protected areas is changing, with large trees that pandas prefer becoming rarer.
The problems that pandas are facing are already classic, but the solutions to these problems may be, at least in part, innovative. Conservationists are working to incorporate smart technology to help safeguard the future of pandas in China. A “digital panda system” is already operational since last year in the Sichuan province and another technology, facial recognition, could also help identify individual pandas more accurately in the country.
A tech approach to protecting pandas
In 2021, China deployed a Digital Panda System across forests and grasslands in the Sichuan province last year, as part of a joint venture between the Sichuan Forest administration and tech giant Huawei. The system helps detect wildfires in areas difficult to reach, notifying park rangers and fire departments to they can act fast.
The system currently helps over 140,000 park rangers, researchers, grassland managers, and conservationists in Sichuan, according to Huawei. The company said that in its first five months of operation the system detected 651 wildfire hot sports and reduced forest fires by 76.1% compared to the same period the previous year.
“The system has provided forest rangers and scientists with an additional ‘eyes and ears’ to reduce the number of visits to harsh environments and making forest protection more effective,” Yue Kun, Huawei’s Global Government Business Department, said in a statement. “Humanity should coexist in harmony with nature.”
The system functions in the Sichuan section of a newly established Giant Panda National Park, an area of about 10,500 square miles that connects 67 reserves in three provinces. The park hosts over 1,800 wild pandas, as well as other 8,000 animal and plant species. So, it’s not just the pandas who get the benefits of this tech system.
But it doesn’t end here. Hou Rong, deputy director at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, and her colleagues are working on new ways to protect the animals, largely focused on new ways of identifying individual animals. Microchips are currently embedded in pandas to identify them and track important health data, but this method is invasive and interferes with the panda’s daily activities.
With this in mind, Hou and her team created a facial recognition system for pandas. She tested and refined an algorithm by using a database of over 6,000 images from 218 pandas in captivity. Each panda has a unique facial structure, they explained, which helps with identifying and counting pandas..
Such software would also help researchers to build a more accurate picture of the number of pandas living in the wild. Population surveys are currently done on foot, with the latest one from 2014 involving over 2,000 people. “These tools are definitely going to support us in doing this (conservation) work better,” Hou told CNN.