This summer Carl Spielvogel ’13 traveled to the high mountains in western Sichuan Province to work at the Wolong National Nature Reserve. The reserve protects many rare plants and animals, but perhaps none more beloved or more vulnerable than the giant panda.
Spielvogel lived for two months in the reserve’s panda station, which breeds giant pandas and helps them reenter the mountainous wilderness. But the Bowdoin senior is quick to dispel any notions that he spent his days cuddling cute panda babies.
“There are cubs,” he said, “but you can’t go and see them unless you’re dressed up in a panda suit.” The Wolong staff tries to minimize the pandas’ exposure to humans, Spielvogel explained.
Once the cubs are old enough to venture into the wild, they’re first put into a giant caged area where they can be monitored by closed-circuit television cameras. Spielvogel jokingly compared the sight of the Wolong staff intently watching panda bears on the reserve’s flat-screen TVs to The Truman Show, a Jim Carey movie where the main character’s life is a constructed reality TV show.
But the monitoring is important because the pandas are gravely endangered and every animal must be attentively supported. “They’re really trying to make the reintroduced pandas a success,” Spielvogel said.
Instead of working directly with pandas, Spielvogel helped the nature reserve, and also indirectly the pandas, in other ways. The organization is starting a multi-year program to decrease the number of Japanese larches within its borders. The dropped needles of the coniferous tree, an invasive species introduced in the 1970s, inhibit native vegetation, including bamboo. The diet of pandas is primarily bamboo, which they must munch on almost constantly since they can absorb only a fraction of the plant’s nutrients.
Spielvogel was hired and funded by the U.S.-China Environmental Fund (USCEF) to help the reserve identify pockets of larches to cut down. With a GPS, he traveled the reserve on foot and motorbike to hunt the trees. Many of the larches, which were planted by local farmers, are close to people’s home and villages. To entice landowners to cut down the larches in the future, Spielvogel said the USCEF and the reserve are developing a plan to provide them seeds for medicinal herbs they can grow in place of the felled trees.
Spielvogel also used his carpentry skills, taught to him by his father, to build a small sawmill to turn the trees into lumber that the local people can sell. This project took Spielvogel weeks, requiring lots of travel on winding muddy roads to peruse small markets for parts. “It’s not like going to Home Depot. Looking for a specific bolt might take one or two days. It took me weeks to find a chainsaw,” he said. Spielvogel picked up some Chinese while he was there, and relied on Fugui, a Wolong employee who spoke English and became a friend, to help him communicate with locals.
Spielvogel, a biochemistry major, said he aspires to be a wildlife veterinarian, but that before going to graduate school, he is considering returning to Wolong next year. This time around, he said he’d like to start a charitable vet clinic, staffed by volunteer vets or students who could treat the animals of the local people.
And lest anybody wonder whether Spielvogel was able to see any pandas during his time in China, he was able to at another reserve in Bifengxia, with a special panda permit he was able to acquire because of his position at Wolong.