The Panda Connection

A new wireless network helps Panda researchers and school kids, too

3 min read
Photo, Left: Xiang Sheren/FeatureChina; Right: K.Feng/Globio
Photo, Left: Xiang Sheren/FeatureChina; Right: K.Feng/Globio

If there’s a universal symbol for cuteness, it has to be the giant panda. The roly-poly, black-and-white bamboo munchers are beloved the world over, and the fact that there are just 1500 left in existence makes the creatures even more precious.

So when chip giant Intel Corp., in Santa Clara, Calif., heard that Chinese researchers were looking for a better way to monitor panda behavior, it jumped at the chance to help. “We figured, wow, this is a great opportunity to play a role in scientific research, especially for the great cause of protecting the panda,” says Ian Yang, Intel’s China country manager, based in Beijing.

Last summer, Intel engineers began installing a state-of-the-art wireless network in Wolong Nature Reserve, a mountainous national park in Sichuan province. One-fifth of the world’s giant pandas still roam the 200 000-hectare reserve, and a renowned panda research center there has achieved a remarkable 100 percent survival rate for pandas bred in captivity. Pandas are notoriously poor reproducers, partly because the females can be impregnated only a few days a year and partly because of the males’ low libido. So every panda born becomes a prized addition to the gene pool.

For all their success, one thing the Wolong researchers sorely lacked was an efficient way to communicate their results with other scientists and even with each other. They had dial-up lines running into a handful of computers in the administration building, but that was several kilometers up the road from the panda hospital, breeding facility, and nursery. And there was no internal network or shared database; instead, workers jotted down notes on paper.

The new IEEE 802.11b Wi-Fi network connects all the panda facilities in Wolong to one another and to the Internet. A number of digital video cameras were also installed outside in the panda enclosures and, more important, in the pens where the females give birth and in the nursery. Data, pictures, and video can now be shared nearly in real time with researchers throughout China and the world. A few weeks after the network went online last October, researchers in Wolong and the United States were hotly debating the panda’s gestation period--was it one month or two or three? (Answer: probably three.)

The network has benefited not only the pandas but also hundreds of children living nearby. Because of the reserve’s remote location--a 4-hour drive to the nearest big city, Chengdu—it’s difficult to recruit teachers, and the schools had no money to spend on computers or much else. “We have one of the most advanced research facilities in the world, but the conditions in our district’s schools are among the worst in the country,” says Zhang Hemin, director of the nature reserve.

Working with a children’s educational nonprofit organization called GLOBIO, based in Portland, Ore., Intel donated a computer lab and paid to hire two teachers. The new teachers received training in computer skills and also in how to use the computers to study nature. Wolong’s lush temperate forests are home to a number of endangered species, including lesser as well as giant pandas, snow leopards, and golden snub-nosed monkeys. “These kids don’t understand what a rare place they’re growing up in,” says Gerry Ellis, GLOBIO’s executive director. “When I told them we don’t have pandas in our forests, they just looked at me like, ‘This American is lying to us.’ ”

When the computer lab opened last fall, the children logged on to their new laptops for the first time and scrolled through dozens of messages sent by students all over China. “Their faces lit up,” Ellis says. “They were talking with kids who could have been on the moon, as far as these kids were concerned. They were talking to the outside world.”

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