Giant pandas may be displaced in the near future as Sichuan and Shaanxi, two Chinese provinces currently home to more than 1,600 wild pandas, plan to establish 18,000 hectares (44,000 acres) of vineyards, according to the South China Morning Post.
In January, the government of Shaanxi, a province located in northwestern China, announced plans for the vineyards at the foot of Qin Mountain. Last year, Sichuan province invited winemakers from Europe and the United States to tour prefectures such as Liangshan, Aba and Ganzi, all officially recognized as natural habitats of giant pandas.
Aba prefecture, in particular, plans to expand its existing vineyards sixfold, to more than 6,600 hectares, by 2020. More than 40,000 farmers will become vineyard workers.
“We will turn Aba prefecture into the Bordeaux of China,” the Aba government said, according to South China Morning Post.
While these plans may well significantly improve economic conditions of these locales, there is concern that the vineyard expansion will come at a heavy cost for giant pandas, which are already endangered.
Some researchers said that without careful research, the sudden surge in vineyard area could hurt local ecosystems as well as affect the lives of residents.
“Vineyards placed around a panda reserve can definitely affect the animals. Pandas move outside of reserves, so the forest outside is an important habitat,” Dr. Lee Hannah, a senior fellow in climate change biology with the U.S.-based Conservation International’s Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science, told the South China Morning Post.
According to Hannah, if forest is cleared for vineyards, there may be a direct loss of panda habitat. If grazing land is converted to vineyards, livestock may be displaced into panda habitat. Only if vineyards are placed on current farmlands will there be little impact on panda habitat.
Governments may not be as thorough in their considerations for vineyard expansion. A government employee in the administrative office of Danba county, in Ganzi prefecture, said that while the protection of pandas is important, the benefits of vineyards are immediate and irresistible. The county has a large Tibetan population; many people there are farmers with household incomes of less than 1,000 yuan ($162.50) a year. They could see their income rise tenfold as vineyard workers.
With such economic incentives, local governments are highly enthusiastic. However, because currently existing land area that may be used for growing vines is limited, and some Tibetan farmers have not yet been persuaded to plant grapes on their farmland, local authorities are eyeing forests to make way for grapes, according to South China Morning Post.