Image: JIANGUO LIU et al.

Nature reserves are meant to serve as safe havens for endangered species and keep human interference to a minimum. But it hasnt quite worked out that way in the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwestern China, according to a new study published Friday in Science.

The reserve was established in 1975 to protect giant pandas and was viewed as a shining example of preservation efforts, receiving funding from both the Chinese government and international organizations. Chinese and American researchers, however, have now found that the reserve has become far less suitable for panda habitation over the past two and a half decades. In fact, the nature reserve has degraded even more quickly than the unprotected land surrounding it. The researchers came to this conclusion after viewing remote sensing data gathered by several satellites both before the reserve was established and after. They combined these findings with information on elevation, slope of the land and forest cover.

Population pressure from the reserve's human residents is to blame for most of the destruction of the forest and panda habitat, the scientists say. The human population inside the reserve has risen dramatically from 2,560 to 4,260 people between 1975 and 1995. At the same time, the number of wild pandas has dropped from 145 in 1974 to only 72 in 1986. The present number is believed to be even smaller.

The scientists suggest that improving educational opportunities for children living in the reserve could lead young people to leave the reserve to pursue better job opportunities elsewhere, eventually helping to reduce the human population. "Our computer simulations suggest that even if only 22 percent of the reserve's young people relocate as a result of attending college, getting married, or taking outside jobs, the human population in the reserve would be reduced to about 700 by the year 2047, and the giant panda habitat would recover and then increase by 7 percent," says Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University, the lead author of the study. "The effectiveness of protected areas needs to be thoroughly examined and monitored, and new approaches that integrate ecology, demography and socioeconomics are needed to truly protect protected areas."