Da Xiong Mao” (giant bear cat), as the Chinese describe the giant panda (ailuropoda melanoleuca), has been regarded for many hundreds of years as a bringer of good luck. A picture of the animal is painted on the front door of many houses and is thought to keep misfortune at bay.
At the beginning of the 1970s China started to donate pandas to zoos throughout the world. The animals delighted visitors with their appearance and playful behaviour. The latter seems to have resulted from their withdrawal into the mountain regions and their preference for vegetarian food, thereby reducing their need to compete for food or to fear other predators.
At the end of the 1970s it became clear that pandas, their numbers reduced to no more than 1000 in the wild, were likely to become further endangered by the destruction of the bamboo forests. So in 1981 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which had adopted the panda as its symbol, set up a research centre with the Chinese government in Sichuan province, where most pandas were found, with the aim of saving the panda from extinction. The Wolong reserve which covered an area of 2000sq. Km/750sq. Miles was dedicated to the preservation of the panda.
In addition punishment for poaching this rare species was to be the death sentence. There is a great demand for their distinctive fur in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong.
Pandas, known to have existed over 2 million years ago, are one of the oldest mammals on earth, but only in the last few thousand years did bamboo become their staple diet. With a panda weighing around 125kg/380lb, its daily bamboo requirements are in the region of 20kg/45lb. But bamboo is a poor source of protein and the animal's stomach rejects most of the stalk.
The bamboo, the panda's preferred food, flowers at very long intervals (sometimes as much as 100 years). After flowering, nearly all the plants in a forest die together. In 1975, all the plants within an area of 5000sq.km/1900sq. Miles died and 140 pandas starved to death. In earlier times the animals would have moved on to new pastures, or new strains of bamboo would have spread into the affected area, but with the reduction in bamboo forests, this is no longer a possibility.
Their distinctive colouring of black ears, white neck and black body serves as an effective camouflage since the black-white contrast allows the outline of the body to merge with the background. A healthy panda has no natural enemies apart from man. Only young, old or sick pandas are likely to fall prey to leopards.
Although the animal feeds almost exclusively on bamboo, it is also a carnivore but it is too slow to catch other animals. The panda climbs well and in summer and autumn takes up residence at altitudes of 3000m/10, 000ft or more. In the winter, however, it will look for lower-lying land. The panda is not a very sociable animal and has no fixed home.
Males and females only come together during the annual mating season. The female panda nurtures the young in a hollow tree or some other shaded spot. The panda's favourite occupation place as a result of tree felling and this has been blamed for floods and the loss of agricultural and grazing land. The Changjiang alone carries away some 500 million tons of fertile soil a year – as much as the Nile, Amazon and Mississippi put together. And the Huanghe carries away three times that amount.
With the disappearance of the forests, valuable medicinal herbs, wild fruit and rare plants have also been lost. In addition many animal species have been threatened with extinction. The desert areas are expanding at a rate of 2300sq. Km /880sq. Miles a year. Since 1949 the area of land regarded as desert has increased by 6 million ha/15 million acres. Attempts to solve these problems have been made by using imported timber and by forestation programmes but more forest continues to be lost through over-exploitation than is gained by replanting.
Forestation schemes are planned mainly in northern China for the middle and upper reaches of the Changjiang and also for coastal regions. UndertheSanbei project a defensive strip of forest is planned which will begin in Helongjiang province and finish in Xinjiang province.
Many Chinese towns are suffering from high levels of air pollution caused predominantly by sulphur dioxide and coal smoke and dust from domestic fires and power stations. The situation is more serious in the north of the country where, unlike in the south, there is no ban on heating. Not only has rapid economic development caused coal consumption to soar, sharply increasing motorisation has brought even higher concentrations of carbon dioxide. Pollution levels were found to be ten times higher than those deemed to be acceptable by the World Health Organisation. Indeed of the ten worst cities in the world from the point of view of air quality, five – Beijing, Shenyang, Xi'an, Shanghai and Canton – are in China. The nationalised industries are responsible for a high proportion of the air pollution. China is now second only to the USA in the emission of “ greenhouse” gases.
In the 1980s a number of environmental laws were introduced to combat this pollution. Other areas of environmental concern such as refuse disposal and sewage treatment received more attention from the authorities as urban infrastructures were extended. Population growth posed particular problems as towns expanded. Plans to develop urban green belts and parkland were devised.
Industrial emissions of smoke and dust did indeed decline but in the smaller towns air pollution increased as more and more factories moved out of the major cities. Special emphasis was laid on environmental issues in recreational areas and tourist cities such as Guilin and Suzhou. Factories which polluted the atmosphere were moved elsewhere or closed.
Continuing economic development has also seen drastic intensification of the effects of acid rain, especially in the south of the country due to the particular combinations of soil and wind conditions. The industrial city of Chongqing is one of the most severely affected areas.
Water quality in China's rivers and lakes is adversely affected by the vast quantities of domestic and industrial effluent. Of 532 rivers tested 436 were classified as polluted, and about half of the larger lakes as very polluted. As a result fishing is in rapid decline. Illegal dumping of waste has caused contamination of ground-water.
Pollution further exacerbates the problem of water supply. In the 1950s in Beijing, for example, the ground-water level was some 5m/16'/2ft below the surface. Today water must be extracted from depths of 50m/165ft.