Over a month has passed since the devastating earthquake ripped through China, toppling schools, uprooting families, and destroying entire towns. And while the citizens of Sichuan Province begin to piece together their lives, the conservation community has begun work to restore the World Heritage panda breeding sanctuaries and hundreds of historic relics that were damaged and destroyed (you can watch a video about some of the efforts here). The Friends of World Heritage, a group that has partnered with UNESCO to promote awareness of the sites, has identified four locations affected by the quake, and with the help of the UN Foundation and Fauna & Flora International, they’ve now implemented a new Rapid Response Facility program to help bring funds and aid workers in to quickly begin restoration efforts.
Three of the four damaged sites were the popular panda sanctuaries, which are visited by thousands of tourists each year. (The fourth site, Mount Qingcheng, was located just 30 miles from the epicenter, and the 2,000-year-old Er-wang “Temple of Two Kings” collapsed during the quake.) Though many visitors actually worked to rescue the pandas in the immediate aftermath, pulling them out of collapsed breeding facilities, for two weeks following the quake the roads leading to the sanctuaries were blocked, meaning the condition of the animals was largely unknown. China’s primary focus had obviously been to provide aid for the humanitarian crisis, says Kate Dodson, the Deputy Director of Sustainable Development for the United Nations Foundation, but now, as roads have been cleared, conservationists have managed to reach the sanctuaries, and are uncovering the extent of the damage.
“The majority of the physical infrastructure was destroyed including all of the 32 panda breeding facilities in the Wolong sanctuaries,” said Dodson. Right now, the Chinese government is working to rebuild the infrastructure, while the Rapid Response Facility teams are work to replace the computers, GPS devices and other equipment used to monitor the pandas and hundreds of other species that live at the sites.
The Rapid Response Facility is a relatively new program that quickly funnels donations to conservation teams on the ground; their aim is to be up and operating all in a week’s time. Local conservationists are on call to respond to incidents that threaten the World Heritage sites, be it an emergency, natural disaster, or rebel incursion. Since creating the program, they’ve allocated ten grants, which have helped to restore security at Virunga National Park (the site of last year’s mountain gorilla killings), and thwart poaching efforts in India’s Manas National Park. But now, with the scope of the Chinese earthquake, their efforts are in overdrive.
“We have a team of conservationists liaising on the ground,” says Dodson. “We are getting our information from them and they’re developing proposals” to determine how the money raised through their ongoing fund-raising drive should best be spent.
As of right now, the conservationists are working with local communities to do rapid assessments of the damage. They’re also looking at the earthquake’s impact on the other species, and, on a larger scale, what impact it will have on the communities that relied on the tourists. Like the earthquake, its aftermath too is a ripple effect. “The micro-economies that sprout up around these sites that are obviously destroyed right now,” says Dodson.
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Photo: Local conservationists evacuated pandas from the Wolong Nature Reserve, one of the world’s prime sites for panda research and conservation, by Zhang Hu.