Tracking the Giant Panda: Then and Now

By katie simpson on January 18, 2014

Bao Bao, the National Zoo’s baby Panda, finally meets his excited public. Nearly 80 years ago, Ruth Harkness brought another baby panda, Su-Lin, to an excited New York. He was the first live panda to the United States.

Ruth Harkness and Su-Lin (source)

As a company focused on data collection, we wondered: how did they find and track pandas? Today, how does technology aid tracking today? Here’s what we found.

The Panda Problem: Cute but Reclusive

Seeing a wild panda isn’t easy. In fact, some researchers have worked in their remote mountain habitat and have never seen them.

Traditionally, pandas were tracked in the mountains with old fashion detective skills. For instance, Harkness and her team followed word of mouth reports of Panda sightings. There, they looked for chewed bamboo and dung droppings.

Harkness’s caravan searching for a giant panda (source)

In fact, Harkness found a panda almost by accident. As they were in the woods, her guide heard a gunshot. Following it, they found a baby panda, hidden in a tree. They took it with them, caring for it with powdered milk.


Tracking Pandas Today with Technology

Today, most panda tracking is for scientific research. Traditional on foot tracking is still used, as researchers did in a 2011 census. Yet even then, technological innovations helped their research. They collected fecal matter to determine the panda population size, and the exact location of the droppings with GPS (easy to do now on smartphones and tablets!)

Woolong Nature Reserve went a step further in using technology to study pandas. They put radio tracking collars on panda bears to track their movements. This helps them in their long term goal of reintroducing pandas into the wild.

These collars send radiowaves, helping researchers understand panda movement through the Woolong Reserve (Earthwatch, source)

With all the work being done by zoos, research facilities, and nature reserves, the giant panda population seems to be on the upswing. We’re excited to see technology help better understand and protect pandas. We look forward to seeing innovation continue to help our planet, and watching Bao Bao grow.