Effects of Cross-Boundary Processes on Human-Nature Dynamics in Wolong Nature Reserve for Giant Pandas

Studies on human-nature dynamics have usually focused on effects of processes within boundaries of coupled human and natural systems. However, almost all coupled human-nature systems are open (e.g., influenced by processes across system boundaries). Among cross-boundary processes, rural-urban labor migration (migration of residents from rural areas for urban employment opportunities) and ecotourism (nature-based tourism in rural areas often by city dwellers) are two increasingly common and important demographic and socioeconomic processes around the world. They are especially critical and rapidly evolving in developing countries such as China, which are experiencing unprecedented increases in human mobility due to economic development over the past three decades. However, little is known about the interactive effects of migration and ecotourism on human-nature dynamics.

The overall research goal of this proposed project is to understand the effects of labor migration and ecotourism on complex dynamics of the coupled human-nature system (local residents and forests/panda habitat) in Wolong Nature Reserve, the “flagship” reserve designated for conserving the world-famous endangered Giant Pandas of China. Wolong is an excellent laboratory for such studies. In Wolong, there are more than 4500 local residents belonging to over 1100 households.Like many other places in China and other developing countries, labor migration from Wolong and ecotourism grew rapidly in Wolong during recent years and this trend is expected to continue in the future. Migration and ecotourism may have complex impacts on human-nature dynamics through direct and indirect influences on local people, forests, and subsequently giant panda habitat.

We will take a systems approach to address four interrelated objectives:

  1. Evaluate the effects of ecotourism on the coupled human-nature system
  2. Assess the effects of labor migration on the coupled human-nature system
  3. Understand the interactive effects of labor migration and ecotourism on the coupled human-nature system
  4. Modeland simulate the long-term effects of migration and ecotourism on the coupled human-nature system.

To achieve the objectives and test a series of hypotheses and answer some fundamental questions (e.g., how much do migration and ecotourism complement, enhance or offset each other in terms of their effects on local people and panda habitat?), we will build on our research in the past decade in Wolong, collect and integrate data from a variety of sources, and use sophisticated statistical tools, spatial technologies, and systems modeling and simulation.

The completion of this proposed project will have significant implications for theory, methodology, and application of coupled human and natural systems. In terms of theory, it will shed light on complex human-nature dynamics (e.g., nonlinearility, thresholds, feedback, uncertainty) shaped by cross-boundary processes. Regarding methodology, it will advance the state-of-the-art in agent-based modeling by producing a web-accessible model exploring the complexity of cross-boundary processes.

With respect to application, the project will improve current and future policies for conserving panda habitat in Wolong, and will provide insights for designing policies that balance the needs of panda conservation and economic development in the world’s most populous nation. The findings will also be of general interest to many other systems due to escalating cross-boundary processes around the world and the urgent need to develop effective policies for addressing increasingly complex human-nature dynamics.

The proposed project will tightly and effectively integrate with research with formal education of students from K-12 to graduate school, and with engagement of stakeholders and the general public from local to international levels. Most of the requested funds will be used for student and postdoctoral trainees, who will not only gain valuable international and interdisciplinary research experience but also will learn valuable leadership skills and add a significant dimension to their understanding and identification of solutions to complex global ecological and societal issues. Interactions with various stakeholders (e.g., reserve managers and government officials) will help improve sustainable reserve management and policies for labor migration and ecotourism. Dissemination of information through the global media and a dynamic web site will bring our findings to general public worldwide.

National Science Foundation project site.

Lead Investigator: 
Jianguo "Jack" Liu