Despite their relative lack of natural predators, pandas are endangered. World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are only 1,600 left in the wild. Humans are their biggest threat. ©Brad Josephs

When images of a wild giant panda gnawing on a takin carcass in China’s Sichuan Province were recently captured on motion-sensor cameras, researchers were caught by surprise. Although pandas are technically carnivores, their diets today consist almost entirely (99 percent) of bamboo leaves, stems and shoots. The new photos provide visual evidence that pandas—at least occasionally—still eat meat.

What’s just as newsworthy, though, is where these images were taken: the cameras were positioned on China’s first land trust reserve, the first organized form of private land conservation in the country. Set up with the help of The Nature Conservancy, the Motianling Land Trust Reserve located in Sichuan Province’s Pingwu County is believed to harbor Asian black bears, golden snub-nosed monkeys, musk deer, porcupines, several bird species, takins and 10 to 20 giant pandas, an endangered species that is almost entirely limited to Sichuan.

Will land trust reserves—long used in the United States—become a workable, successful model for conservation in China?

Using their enlarged wrist bones that function as opposable thumbs, pandas eat 26 to 84 pounds of bamboo every day. ©Brad Josephs

A fortuitous find

In the footage taken in China’s Motianling Land Trust Reserve, the giant panda feeds on the takin carcass for more than six hours, making this the most extensive photographic record of a wild panda eating meat. While primarily herbivorous, giant pandas still retain their ursine teeth and will eat meat, fish and eggs when available. So while the fact that pandas are carnivores isn’t exactly news to scientists—evidence in feces has shown that pandas do sometimes consume meat—up until now, there have been very few photos of them actually doing so.

What’s a bit more puzzling is that there is plenty of the pandas’ primary food—bamboo—in the area. That means that the animal was not starving from lack of access to bamboo, but rather that on coming across a fresh carcass—the panda did not kill the takin—it did what carnivores do: it ate the meat. However, since there exists only a small amount of proof that wild pandas eat meat, this is still considered a rare behavior.

Scientists aren’t sure when giant pandas shifted to an all-bamboo diet. But today, the animals have to eat vast quantities of the hollow plant to gain enough energy and nutrition to survive. Their behavior has subsequently evolved to cope with this weak diet, which is why they often appear to be slow and lumbering. Giant pandas even avoid social interactions and energetic exploits in order to preserve their strength.

Giant pandas still have their ursine teeth. They will eat meat when available, such as the carcass of a takin, a large species of ungulate found in the eastern Himalayas. ©Eric Kilby, flickr

A savvy solution

Land Trust Reserves—buying lands to protect them—is a conservation approach that has been used in the United States for decades. Regulatory shifts that have occurred in China over the past five years have now made the method available there. In the case of the prototype Motianling Land Trust Reserve, The Nature Conservancy, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the Chinese government and local communities partnered to create the land trust.

Although China has close to 2,500 nature reserves, some suffer from stretched-too-thin funds or insufficient law enforcement. Land trust reserves now allow local conservation groups or NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to essentially become “land trusts,” securing long-term leases on ecologically important lands surrounding the already-established reserves and augmenting and expanding their protections.

Fortunately, the Motianling Land Trust Reserve connects two existing nature reserves (the Baishuijiang and Tangjiahe National Nature Reserves), providing a crucial wildlife corridor for China’s animals. It also functions as a well-guarded buffer zone that helps to keep out poachers, a critical ecological threat in the region. In addition, the new land trust reserve contains the sources of two streams, now saved from the hydropower development that has choked many of Sichuan’s other rivers. And, Motianling is creating new, environmentally friendly livelihoods for local people by providing microfinance programs and ecotourism jobs.

Hydropower development has choked many of Sichuan’s rivers. Land trust reserves can protect streams. ©Brad Josephs

The extraordinary photos of a panda eating a takin carcass wouldn’t have been possible without that particular spot of land having been under the protections of the new land trust reserve. While some have called the meat-eating panda’s behavior an “evolutionary throwback” or a “guilty pleasure,” it might just be that a lot of the natural world is still hidden from us—waiting to be discovered until we have the will to conserve and protect it.

Do you think that the model of private land trusts that is used in the United States can substantially benefit China’s conservation efforts?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,