By Xinhua writer Liu Wei
CHENGDU, July 5 (Xinhua) -- Wang Dezhi recalls the first time he came to Old Creek forest farm in 2010.
Many fish had been poisoned and wild animals were shot for cash.
Now a nature reserve in southwest China's Sichuan Province, Old Creek is playing a key role in a planned national park that will unite the isolated habitats of the 1,864 giants pandas still living in the wild.
And the transformation has changed the fortunes of both the people and wildlife in the area.
The national park, covering 27,134 square kilometers, will be three times the size of Yellowstone National Park in the United States. It will have four major parts: a core protection area; an ecological restoration area; a touring and education zone; and home for living and production.
The park will restore corridors to link up 67 panda reserves on six isolated mountain ranges. It is hoped the pandas will be able to mingle and mate, to enrich their gene pool and raise their numbers in the wild by 2025.
A state-owned forest farm established in the 1970s, Old Creek is one of the natural corridors, linking habitats in northern Gansu and Sichuan. In 1998, China halted logging and many staff left Old Creek for other jobs.
"People have lived here for generations and they feel the forest and the mountain belong to them," says Wang, chief scientist of the Paradise Foundation, a Sichuan-based conservation group.
"Poaching and herb collecting are easy ways to make money. Villagers don't care much about environmental protection if they can't make a decent living."
Over two years of research and negotiation, the Paradise Foundation and the Pingwu County, where the farm is located, signed a 50-year land trust contract. The foundation has been charged with protecting Old Creek Nature Reserve since 2012.
"We realized there were two key factors in conservation: fending off poachers and finding environmentally sustainable ways for locals to make a better living," says Wang.
Sichuan Forestry Department organized a team of experts to study Old Creek's experience earlier this year.
"This could reduce the impact of expanding human activity, which has worsened their habitat fragmentation over the decades," says department head Yao Sidan.
But building and restoring the corridors is challenging.
The foundation has promoted organic farming at nearby Minzhu village, in Gaocun township.
"We buy the produce so long as the farmers use environment-friendly methods and the produce is free of chemical fertilizers. We pay higher prices than the local market," says Shu Cheng, who liaises with the farmers.
Chen Xiaohong raises free-range chickens and pigs and grows walnuts, peanuts and corn. Last year, Chen's family earned around 50,000 yuan, almost double their income six years ago.
"Most villagers worried at first that their produce wouldn't sell, but I decided to give it a try," says Chen, 41.
Ninety rural families have joined the organic farming program since 2014 and each family had increased their income at least 10,000 yuan a year, says Sun Jun, head of the Gaocun township.
"They love their home. No one would damage their environment unless they had nothing to lose."
Sun says this has kept poachers at bay and Old Creek Nature Reserve has regained its biodiversity. Since 2016 year, infrared cameras captured photos of giant pandas 55 times within the 110 square kilometers of the reserve.
"We used to stress protecting pandas within reserves, but the lack of capital and a unified plan and protection ability rendered many reserves unable to keep the ecological systems on track," says Hou Rong, director of Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
"Pandas and many wild animals are suffering from such insufficient protection."
Hou says the national park will benefit both wildlife and humans. While the pandas roam freely, many forest farms and factories have been shut down and many people in Sichuan have had to find new jobs and relocate.
Since the park plan was issued in March, two mines have closed within Gaocun township. Some workers have found new jobs as Old Creek Nature Reserve rangers.
Chen Xianghui, a former worker at Old Creek forest farm, now leads patrols around the mountains four times a week to deter poachers and check the 80 infrared cameras are working.
"Last month we spotted a poacher, the only one in a few months, but he didn't hurt any animals," says Chen. "I'm proud to guard the reserve."
The foundation has also trained local people as tour guides. Wang says the guides know how to minimize the human impact on the reserve.
"We are also helping local families to renovate their homes as commercial accommodation," says Wang.
Sichuan Province is planning to create an international panda tourist trail by integrating the panda research centers and reserves. The route will help improve living standards for locals, but it must be carefully designed and monitored so as not to disturb the pandas.
"In such a vast area with such a diverse ecological system, conservation needs the support of locals," says Wang. "This park is in the interests of both pandas and humans."