MSU student Vanessa Hull in her quest to collar a panda

To catch a panda


March 25, 2010

Today we caught an adult giant panda in Wolong Nature Reserve. It's a girl!

Her curious face is now forever etched in my mind. She is beautiful and is rather large, at 70-80 kg!

She was minimally disturbed by the capturing process and is now out there running around in her wild habitat with a GPS collar around her neck.

I am excited to have reached this point after three years of attempting to capture wild pandas. This event happened just two days after my 28th birthday, when friends from both China and the U.S. all wished for me to catch a panda as a birthday present.

We have not come up with a name for our girl yet ... but I feel privileged to be given the chance to get to know her. I hope to share more details as the reality of what happened today sinks in!

Special thanks to all of my weblog friends for their support over the course of this long journey!


Dedicated panda researcher hopes third attempt is the charm

September 2009

Five years after she first traveled to a rugged, remote part of China, Michigan State University researcher Vanessa Hull again this month set out aiming to trap and track rare giant pandas.

“The central mission is still the same, which is to catch four pandas and put GPS (global positioning system) collars on them,” said Hull, 27.

After two years of trying to trap and then track the movements of the reclusive beast in its natural habitat in detail, this will be her final attempt. If finally successful, it could yield information that could help scientists preserve the dwindling species. Perhaps 1,600 giant pandas are left in the world, threatened by human encroachment and loss of habitat even in their mountainous range in Sichuan Province.

Endangered species

“Pandas are among the most endangered animals in the world and we really need to look out for their long-term survival,” she said. “We still don’t know a lot about their life in the wild and which resources are ideal for them. Until we answer those questions, we’re just guessing at setting up protected areas.”

What started out as a dissertation project now is a personal challenge Hull pursues despite the pandas’ failure to cooperate and considerable hardship. The research station where she lives and works at the Wolong Nature Reserve – the center of world panda study and breeding – experienced a massive earthquake in May 2008 that killed some 90,000 people and left 5 million homeless.

Earthquake damage makes for rugged conditions

There’s still no electricity at the field research station. At one point Hull had to walk 15 minutes to fetch water after pipes froze and ruptured. Wood is used to heat and cook, while a generator provides two or three hours of power a day to operate her laptop. There is no phone service. A hike down the mountain to the nearest village takes 45 minutes, and if a car isn’t available, it’s another hour of walking to reach Internet service.

“She is amazing,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, her academic adviser.”It’s really rare see a student with such persistence and commitment to do this kind of work – especially last year after the earthquake. And she stayed there several months.”

After two winters at the field station, Hull is resolved to apply what she’s learned to mount a final try. She and her collaborators in the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Wolong Nature Reserve have identified several likely sites to place their trap cages, which are baited with goat meat that triggers a falling log to close the door. This time she’ll take transmitters to signal when a trap has closed, reducing the need to make frequent checks that can spook the shy beasts.

She’ll also break her program into two time periods, returning home in mid-November after panda movement tends to wane, and resuming the work from mid-February to mid-April when males begin to roam seeking mates.

An international collaboration

More precise data from a GPS system would improve understanding of panda movement and behavior, which would help decision-makers to better preserve their habitat and prepare to release captive-born pandas into the wild.

“The collaboration is very important as the U.S. and China teams play complementary roles,” said Zhiyun Ouyang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, a primary collaborator. “China has many unique ecological conditions. For example, wild giant pandas exist in China only. The Chinese team is very familiar with local conditions and can provide logistic support. On the other hand, the U.S. team brings theory and advanced techniques to the project.”

Hull has shifted the focus of her dissertation away from a focus on panda capture, but still is committed to the project. And she again will chronicle her experiences as they occur in “Vanessa’s Journal,” her blog on the MSU China special online report.

“I’ve have been enamored with giant pandas since I was very young,” she said.“There’s something comforting about their continued presence in my life – I gain a sense of identity through the work that I do with pandas. The opportunity for growth of the discipline and expansion of the knowledge base on these amazing creatures is what keeps me coming back for more.”

“This is her passion, her commitment and it demonstrates exceptional devotion to this kind of research, which is incredible,” said Liu, a University Distinguished Professor, holder of the Rachel Carson Chair in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and faculty in the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. “We are so lucky to have her and we’re delighted to continue to support her.”