Researchers Yang Yi, left, and Fan Min use a GPS device to record their location… (Barbara Demick / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Sanhe, China — If pandas weren't so darn cute, we wouldn't be up in the clouds at the edge of a mountain ravine slick with moss and mud, clinging for life to shoots of bamboo.
And get this: There is almost zero chance that we'll actually see a panda. We keep our eyes on the ground, not just to keep from falling, but because the best we can hope for is to discover panda droppings (and even the chances of that aren't so hot).
"To be honest, I've been working in these mountains for 20 years and I've never seen a panda in the wild," says Dai Bo, 43, a wildlife biologist with China's Forestry Ministry who's wearing a camouflage jacket and hiking boots and has a zoom-lens Canon around his neck, just in case.
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Dai is leading a six-person team through the fog-shrouded mountains of Sichuan province to conduct the first census in a decade of China's endangered panda population. Although Dai's specialty is predatory birds, all wildlife researchers are being pressed into service whether they love pandas or not, and one does sense a certain panda fatigue.
"If you're in Sichuan province, you've got to study pandas," Dai says with resignation.
The last survey, conducted in 2000-'01, showed just 1,596 pandas living in the wild in China.
Since then, China's breakneck growth and construction of roads, railroads and utility lines have driven the panda population into isolated mountain enclaves, where they are vulnerable to inbreeding and starvation.
Over the next year, more than 100 people will fan out across 12,000 square miles of treacherous mountain passes in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, stalking the giant panda or its droppings.
On a recent day, a few census workers convene 120 miles southwest of Chengdu in Sanhe, a mountain village where corn hangs drying from the rafters of wooden houses and women carry baskets of mountain herbs on their backs.
After a night in an unheated guesthouse with concrete floors, the workers divide into groups. Dai's team takes off in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, bouncing down a dirt road to the base of a mountain called Daping, part of the Xiangling range.
A 72-year-old villager, a stocky man carrying a sickle to cut through the underbrush, serves as a guide. He scrambles uphill like a goat, pausing from time to time to roll and smoke a cigarette, looking down with contempt at the scientists and journalists laboring to catch up.
Underfoot, the ground is dense with moldering wood and moss. The slopes are lush with firs, cedars, palms and ficus and plenty of good things to eat: wild kiwis, hazelnuts and fire berries from the pyracantha bush. But pandas prefer bamboo, which they consume in copious quantities.
Panda droppings are pale green and look a little like bundles of twigs. When the team finds them, a junior researcher accompanying Dai does a maneuver that any U.S. dog owner would recognize, grabbing it with his hand inside a plastic bag that he then turns inside out and ties shut. With a handheld GPS device, the team also records the precise locations where excrement is found.
Each panda's droppings are a signature, varying according to how thoroughly the animal chomps the bamboo. Back at the lab, researchers extract and measure the stalks of bamboo. By studying the samples and their locations, the scientists can get a rough idea of how many pandas are in a particular area. For this census, they will also conduct DNA analysis of the poop.
"It's much harder to do a census of pandas than of people. With a human census, people talk to people. You have no other way of communicating with the pandas," says Hong Mingsheng, one of the researchers.
On Daping mountain, the bamboo grows as thick as a man's thumb and is closely spaced like the bars of a cage. The guide swings his sickle to clear a path, but it's no use: Runners wrap around our feet and prickly branches grab at our hair.
"The bamboo is too dense here. No good for big animals," says the villager, Yang Pingfang.
It turns out to be a frustrating day. In more than nine hours of hiking, the team finds no panda droppings, only the excrement of a black bear, which looks like spilled coffee grounds.
"Anybody who has experienced our work knows it is not that glamorous. It is sometimes boring and lonely," says junior researcher Yang Yi, 30, who estimates he will cover nearly 900 miles over the next year for the panda census.
The results won't be published until 2013 at the earliest. The scientists hope to find that the population has rebounded thanks to intensive conservation efforts.
Since the 1980s, the number of nature reserves where hunting, trapping and logging are banned has increased to 60 from 13. A 2006 survey by the Chinese Academy of Sciences found 66 pandas in the Wanglang reserve in Sichuan province, double an earlier estimate.