With a relatively small population though, pandas are not out of the woods — or the bamboo forest — just yet.
Now, conservationists hope that smart tech can help to 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 across forest and grasslands in Sichuan province in February 2021. The instant reporting system helps to detect wildfires in hard-to-reach areas, alerting rangers and fire departments so they can intervene quickly, as well as 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 distinguish the differences.
“Digital technology will play a greater 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 detect 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 doesn’t require cables and is more reliable in complex terrain, says Zhao.
According to Huawei, the system assists 140,000 forest rangers, grassland managers, conservationists and researchers in Sichuan. In its first five months of operations, it detected 651 wildfire hot spots, reducing forest fires by 71.6% compared to the same period the previous year, according to Huawei.
Zhao says that in the future, the Digital Panda System could be extended across the sections of the national park that lie 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 not yet recovered to their pre-1980 level.
Now, smart tech offers “new tools and possibilities,” says Hou, and could help conservationists return even more pandas to their natural habitat.
“My colleagues are working on the protection, recovery, and monitoring of their local habitats,” she says. “We are also exploring the rewilding of giant pandas.”
Picking a panda out of a lineup
Hou hopes that smart tech can help to solve a major daily challenge for researchers: identifying individual pandas.
“Even at the giant panda base, no staff member knows all of the individuals,” she says.
Currently, microchips are embedded in pandas’ necks to identify individuals, allowing researchers to track important health information like vaccinations. But this method is invasive, requiring the carer to get up close with a card reader and it can interfere with the panda’s daily activities, says Hou.
“These tools are definitely going to support us in doing this (conservation) work better,” says Hou.