Smart technology helps save China’s giant pandas | Panda Anku


The giant panda has long been the face of animal welfare since WWF adopted the adorable black and white bear as its logo in 1961. But after decades of intensive conservation programs, pandas are no longer endangered.

With a relatively small population, however, pandas are not out of the forest — or the bamboo forest — just yet.

The biggest threat to the wild panda population is habitat loss. Its reliance on bamboo for food has made the species particularly vulnerable to environmental change, and China’s rapid urban development over the past century has pushed pandas to a fraction of their historical range. And although around 54% of its wild habitat is protected, these areas are still vulnerable to natural disasters like wildfires.

Now conservationists are hoping that smart technology can help secure the panda’s future.

To protect the pandas’ habitat, the “Digital Panda System,” developed in a joint venture between the Sichuan Forest and Grassland Administration and Chinese tech giant Huawei, was deployed in forests and grasslands in Sichuan province in February 2021. The instant alarm system helps in detecting forest fires in hard-to-reach areas, alerting rangers and fire brigades so they can respond quickly, and monitoring wildlife.

Meanwhile, another smart technology – facial recognition – could help identify individual pandas more accurately. To the human eye, their fur-covered faces all look the same, but computer algorithms are able to tell the differences.

“Digital technology will play a bigger role in biodiversity conservation (and) in the future,” said Zhao Jian, a solutions expert at Huawei’s Sichuan office who oversaw the development of the Digital Panda System.

The system collects data from 596 cameras, 45 infrared cameras, drones and satellites, which it stores in the cloud. Conservationists and researchers use this data to monitor, track, and study wildlife and identify wildfire hotspots.

Smart technology helps protect China’s giant pandas

Because the cameras will be deployed in remote areas where there is little or no electricity, the system is solar-powered and uses microwave transmission, which requires no wires and is more reliable in complex terrain, Zhao says.

According to Huawei, the system supports 140,000 foresters, grassland managers, conservationists and researchers in Sichuan. In the first five months of operation, it detected 651 wildfires, reducing wildfires by 71.6% compared to the same period last year, according to Huawei.

Despite its name, the Digital Panda System doesn’t just protect pandas, Zhao says. The system includes the Sichuan section of the newly established Giant Panda National Park — an area of ​​nearly 10,500 square miles connecting 67 reserves in three provinces. The park is home to most of China’s 1,800 wild pandas — along with another 8,000 animal and plant species, including endangered animals like red pandas and the golden snub-nosed monkey.

Zhao says the digital panda system could be expanded to the parts of the national park in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces in the future to create more “success stories” for other endangered species.

While pandas are no longer endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), their population is still considered vulnerable and numbers in the wild have not yet recovered to pre-1980 levels.

But captive breeding efforts could help boost the population. The Chengdu Panda Base in Sichuan Province has been at the forefront of panda conservation and rearing since it opened in 1987 with just six sick and starving pandas. The base is now home to more than 200 pandas, and through partnerships with other zoos and reserves, the global captive population was 673 as of October 2021, says Hou Rong, deputy director of the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.

Technologies such as IVF have been vital in efforts to increase panda numbers, while GPS has been used to track and monitor the few captive pandas that have been released into the wild.

Now smart technology offers “new tools and opportunities,” Hou says, and could help conservationists bring even more pandas back to their natural habitat.

“My colleagues are working on protecting, restoring and monitoring their local habitats,” she says. “We’re also researching the release of giant pandas.”

Hou hopes smart tech can help solve a major daily challenge facing researchers: identifying individual pandas.

“Even at the giant panda base, no employee knows every individual,” she says.

Microchips are currently being embedded in pandas’ necks to identify individuals, allowing researchers to track vital health information like vaccinations. But this method is invasive, requiring the caregiver to get close by with a card reader, and it can disrupt the panda’s daily activities, Hou says.

Hou worked with a team for five years to develop a face recognition system for pandas. The algorithm was tested and refined using a database of over 6,400 images of 218 captive pandas.

Conservationists hope smart technology will give a more accurate idea of ​​wild panda population numbers.

Each panda has a unique facial structure and hair pattern, says Pranjal Swarup, co-author of the panda face recognition study. “(We) are not able to recognize and remember finer facial features, even in humans,” says Swarup. But for computers that can recognize small differences and convert them into a number system, spotting individual pandas is much easier, he adds.

Face recognition could also help researchers get a more accurate picture of the number of pandas in the wild, Swarup says. Currently, population surveys, which have been conducted every decade since 1974, are conducted on foot, most recently in 2014, which involved 2,000 people and surveyed 4.36 million hectares of land over a three-year period.

“These tools will definitely help us do this (conservation) work better,” says Hou.


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