However, with a relatively small population, pandas have not yet emerged from the forest or the bamboo forest.
Now, conservationists are hoping that smart technology will help protect the panda’s future.
In February 2021, the “Digital Panda System” was deployed in the forests and grasslands of Sichuan Province to protect the habitat of pandas, developed by a joint venture between the Sichuan Forest and Rangeland Administration and Chinese tech giant Huawei. An instant warning system helps detect forest fires. in hard-to-reach places, alerting rangers and firefighters so they can intervene quickly, as well as observing wildlife.
Meanwhile, another smart technology — facial recognition — could help identify individual pandas more accurately. To the human eye, all of their furry faces look the same, but computer algorithms can tell the difference.
“Digital technology will play a more important role in conservation (and) biodiversity in the future,” says Zhao Jian, a solution expert at Huawei’s Sichuan office who oversaw the development of the Digital Panda system.
“Panda Digital System”
The system collects data from 596 cameras, 45 infrared cameras, drones and satellites and saves it in the cloud. Conservationists and researchers use this data to monitor, track and study wildlife, and to locate wildfires.
Since the cameras are used in remote areas where power supply is weak or non-existent, Zhao said, the system is powered by solar power and uses microwave transmission, which does not require cables and is more reliable in difficult terrain.
According to Huawei, the system is helping 140,000 forest rangers, pasture managers, conservationists and researchers in Sichuan province. It detected 651 wildfire hotspots in its first five months of operation, according to Huawei, reducing the number of wildfires by 71.6% compared to the same period of the previous year.
Zhao says that in the future, the Digital Panda system could be extended to areas of the national park located in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, creating more “success stories” for other endangered species.
Although 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 pre-1980 levels.
Now, smart technologies offer “new tools and opportunities,” Howe says, and could help conservationists bring even more pandas back to their natural habitat.
“My colleagues are working to protect, restore and monitor their local habitat,” she says. “We are also exploring the possibility of rebuilding giant pandas.”
Choosing a panda from the line
Howe hopes the smart technology will help researchers solve a major daily challenge: identifying individual pandas.
“Even at the giant panda base, no employee knows all the people,” she says.
Currently, microchips are being implanted in pandas’ necks to identify people, allowing researchers to track vital health information such as vaccinations. But the method is invasive, requires the caregiver to get close to the card reader, and can interfere with the panda’s daily activities, Howe says.
“These tools will definitely help us do this (security) job better,” Howe says.