Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pandas are much harder to study than monkeys

"Anybody who has experienced our work knows it is not that glamorous. It is sometimes boring and lonely," Panda researcher Yang Yi

The LA Times has an interesting article on censusing pandas, and what struck me is that while the challenges and frustrations of panda research are similar to my own, the rewards are much fewer and far between.

Yi's statement would apply to most fieldwork. It definitely applied to some parts of mine. However, the work of censusing and studying pandas makes my research look easy, and far more rewarding. When censusing unhabituated animals, you have to look for traces, such as feces, prints, scratches, or nests, depending on the type of animal you are studying. For example, if you are censusing great apes, you look for nests. If you are censusing panda droppings, you look for panda feces. And while fecals are rewarding as both data points and assurances that the pandas are still there, they are not as rewarding as seeing the animal itself. And pandas sightings are rare. I've heard that dedicated panda biologists consider it a highlight to see one in the wild just a few times in their career. Dai Bo, a wildlife biologist quoted in the LA Times articles, has worked in the mountainous Sichuan province for 20 years without seeing a single panda.

This really reminds me how lucky I am to study animals that I could regularly observe, and increases my respect and appreciation for everyone who studies animals who are far more cryptic. I have learned from past field experiences that while I can put up with much of the loneliness, tedium, and frustrations of fieldwork, I need to regularly see the animals I am studying to stay motivated. And while I love the forest, and am fascinated by the research questions I am exploring, for me, the main reward is the joy of getting to know individual personalities, watching infants and juveniles grow, and peering into the daily lives and dramas of the animals I study. While I definitely have stretches in which I can't find the monkeys, or am constantly losing the monkeys as I get stuck in the swamp, I have the lucky moments in which I get to watch and enjoy the monkeys. And every once in a while, I get the opportunity to see other, more elusive animals, such as tayra, sloth, tamandua, jaguarundi, agouti, and tapir.

There are many times that I've wished I had chosen to study terrestrial, easy-to-see primates, such as baboons or macaques. But thinking about the panda census makes me realize how lucky I am to see my spider monkeys as often as I did.

However, for those of us sitting at our computers, it's much easier to see pandas, because the San Diego Zoo, the National Zoo, and Zoo Atlanta all have panda cams. Thus far, I have yet to find a spider monkey cam!

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