Smart technology is helping save China’s giant pandas

However, with a relatively small population, pandas are not yet out of the forest, or the bamboo forest.

The biggest threat to the wild panda population is habitat loss. Their reliance on bamboo for sustenance has made the species particularly vulnerable to environmental changes, and China’s rapid urban development over the last century has pushed pandas to a fraction of their historical range. And while about 54% of its wild habitat is protected, these areas remain vulnerable to natural disasters like wildfires.

Now conservationists hope smart technology can help safeguard the panda’s future.

To protect panda 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. Instant reporting system helps detect forest fires. in hard-to-reach areas, alerting rangers and fire departments so they can quickly intervene, as well as monitor wildlife.

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

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

A “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, as well as to spot wildfire hotspots.

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 wires and is more reliable in complex terrain, Zhao says.

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According to Huawei, the system supports 140,000 forest rangers, range managers, conservationists and researchers in Sichuan. In its first five months of operations, it detected 651 wildfire hotspots, reducing wildfires by 71.6% compared to the same period a year earlier, according to Huawei.

Despite its name, the Digital Panda System offers protection to more than just pandas, Zhao says. The system covers the Sichuan section of the newly established Giant Panda National Park, an area of ​​nearly 10,500 square miles that connects 67 reserves in three provinces. The park is home to China’s 1,800 wild pandas, along with 8,000 other species of animals and plants, including endangered animals like red pandas and the golden snub-nosed monkey.
The new Giant Panda National Park is also expected to benefit other endangered species, such as the golden snub-nosed monkey (pictured).

Zhao says that in the future, the Digital Panda System could be extended to sections of the national park that are in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, creating more “success stories” for other endangered species.

a growing population

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 yet to recover to their pre-1980 level.

But captive breeding efforts could help increase the population. The Chengdu Panda Base in Sichuan province has been at the forefront of panda conservation and breeding 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 stood at 673 as of October 2021, says Hou Rong, deputy director of the Panda Breeding Research Base. Chengdu Giant.

This video shows the Digital Panda System capturing a wild panda for the first time in August 2021. Credit: Sichuan Administration of the Giant Panda National Park, Sichuan Provincial Forestry and Grassland Bureau, and Huawei

Technology such as IVF has 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 possibilities,” Hou says, and could help conservationists return even more pandas to the wild.

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

Pick a panda from a lineup

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

“Even at the giant panda base, no one staff member knows all the individuals,” he 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 keeper to approach a card reader, and can interfere with the panda’s daily activities, Hou says.

Hou has worked with a team for five years to develop a facial recognition system for pandas. The algorithm was tested and refined using a database of more than 6,400 images taken from 218 captive pandas.
Conservationists hope smart technology will give a more accurate picture of wild panda population numbers.
Each panda has a unique facial structure and fur pattern, says Pranjal Swarup, co-author of the panda facial recognition study. “(We) are unable to recognize and memorize finer facial features, even in humans,” says Swarup. But for computers, which can detect small differences and convert them into a number system, recognizing individual pandas is much easier, he adds.
Facial recognition could also help researchers build a more accurate picture of panda numbers in the wild, says Swarup. Currently, population surveys, conducted every decade since 1974, are carried out on foot, with the last one in 2014 involving 2,000 people, surveying 4.36 million hectares of land over three years.

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

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