Giant pandas have always been the face of animal protection, ever since the WWF adopted the adorable black and white bear as its emblem in 1961. But after decades of intense conservation programmes, the panda is no longer endangered.
With a relatively small population, pandas haven’t made it out of the jungle – or the bamboo forest – yet.
The biggest threat to the wild panda population is habitat loss. Their dependence on bamboo for sustenance has made the species particularly vulnerable to environmental changes, and China’s rapid urban development over the past century has pushed pandas to a small part of their historical range. And while about 54% of its wild habitat is protected, these areas are still vulnerable to natural disasters, such as wildfires.
Now, conservationists hope smart technology will help protect the panda’s future.
To protect the panda habitat, the “Digital Panda System”, developed in a joint venture between the Sichuan Forest and Grassland Administration and Chinese technology giant Huawei, was deployed across forests and grasslands in Sichuan Province in February 2021. The instantaneous reporting system helps detect wildfires in In hard-to-reach areas, alert rangers and fire departments so they can intervene quickly, as well as keep an eye on wildlife.
Meanwhile, another smart technology – facial recognition – could help identify individual pandas more accurately. To the human eye, their furry faces look alike, but computer algorithms are able to discern the differences.
“Digital technology will play a greater role in biodiversity conservation (and) in the future,” says Zhao Jian, a solutions expert at Huawei’s Sichuan office who oversaw the development of Digital Panda System.
The system collects data from 596 cameras, 45 infrared cameras, drones and satellites, and stores it in the cloud. Conservationists and researchers use this data to monitor, track and study wildlife, as well as detect wildfire hotspots.
– Source: CNN
Smart technology helps protect giant pandas in China
Because the cameras are used in remote areas where there is little or no power supply, the system is solar-powered and uses microwave transmission, which requires no cables and is more reliable in complex terrain, Zhao says.
According to Huawei, the system helps 140,000 forest rangers, grassland managers, conservationists and researchers in Sichuan. In the first five months of its operations, 651 hot forest fire spots were detected, reducing wildfires by 71.6% compared to the same period a year earlier, according to Huawei.
Despite its name, the Digital Panda System provides protection for more than just pandas, says Zhao. The system covers the Sichuan section of the newly established Giant Panda National Park – it covers an area of about 10,500 square miles and links 67 reserves across three provinces. The park is home to China’s 1,800 wild pandas – along with another 8,000 species of animals and plants, including endangered animals like the red panda and the snub-nosed monkey.
Zhao says that in the future, the Digital Panda system could be expanded across sections of the national park located in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, creating more “success stories” for other endangered species.
While the panda is no longer threatened with extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), its population remains vulnerable and numbers in the wild have not yet recovered to the pre-1980 level.
But captive breeding efforts can help increase the population. The Chengdu Panda Base in Sichuan Province has been a pioneer in panda conservation and breeding since it opened in 1987 with only six sick and hungry pandas. The base is now home to more than 200 pandas, and through partnerships with other zoos and reserves, the world’s captive population reached 673 in October 2021, says Hu Rong, deputy director of the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.
Technology such as artificial insemination has been vital in efforts to increase panda populations, while GPS has been used to track and monitor a few captive pandas released into the wild.
Now, smart technology offers “new tools and capabilities,” he says, and could help conservationists return more pandas to their natural habitat.
“My colleagues work to protect, restore and monitor their local habitat,” she says. “We are also exploring recreating the giant panda.”
Hoo hopes the smart technology will help solve one of the researchers’ major daily challenges: identifying individual pandas.
“Even at the giant panda base, no employee knows all the individuals,” she says.
Currently, microchips are embedded in pandas’ necks to identify individuals, allowing researchers to track important health information such as vaccinations. But this method is invasive, requires the caregiver to get close to the card reader and can interfere with the panda’s daily activities, Hu says.
Huo worked with the team for five years to develop the panda’s facial recognition system. The algorithm was tested and refined using a database of more than 6,400 images taken from 218 captive pandas.
Each panda has a unique facial structure and hair pattern, says Pranjal Swaroop, co-author of the facial recognition study. “[We]are not able to recognize and memorize precise facial features, even in humans,” Swarup says. He adds that for computers, which can pick up subtle differences and turn them into a numerical system, identifying individual pandas is much easier.
Facial recognition can help researchers get a more accurate picture of the panda population in the wild, too, says Swarup. Currently, population surveys – conducted every decade since 1974 – are conducted on foot, most recently in 2014 involving 2,000 people, examining 4.36 million hectares of land over three years.
“These tools will definitely support us in doing this (conservation) work better,” Hu says.