In September 2016, the giant panda was declared no longer “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) despite unsuccessful breeding programmes in zoos. With an estimated 1,864 individuals in the wild, the giant panda has been downgraded to “vulnerable” on the IUCN’s “red list”. The red list categorises species as least concern, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, and extinct, and this increase in population of the giant panda is a success story for China’s conservation efforts.
While the newspapers focus on controversial captive breeding programmes, conservation strategies to protect pandas in the wild have been the driving force behind the increase in panda population, with only 5 captive bred pandas having been released into the wild.
Nature reserves protect 67% of the panda population, and the Chinese government seems committed to preventing biodiversity decrease by passing a number of laws designed to reduce poaching and promote reforestation (such as the 1988 Wildlife Protection Law and 1993 National Panda Program). Pandas have benefitted from broader environmental conservation programmes, including the 1997 Natural Forest Conservation Program that was designed to prevent flooding of human communities by reducing deforestation and soil erosion. This programme banned logging in forests that include panda habitat, thereby reducing habitat loss.
Creating bamboo corridors has been one of the strategies put into place to help increase the panda population. These are “corridors” of bamboo forest that have been planted specifically to connect other pockets of forest where pandas live. This provides more food for the species, a larger habitat, and also the potential to find more breeding mates as the pandas travel from one area of habitat to another.
The Chinese Government’s commitment to conserving the panda by creating nature reserves and reducing deforestation has had positive consequences on other Chinese species. In this way, giant pandas are what is known as an “umbrella species”, by which is meant that efforts to protect the panda’s habitat has also led to the conservation of habitat for many more species that live alongside pandas.
A study by Li and Pimm (2005) shows that of China’s unique wildlife, 70% of forest mammals, 70% of forest birds, and 31% of forest amphibians live within the panda’s geographical range. Therefore, they are also living in the nature reserves that are set out to protect pandas and receive protection themselves.
However, planting more food and creating more habitat is not necessarily enough. Human development disconnects the present habitats by building roads and expanding towns, and local livelihoods often depend on the forests for wood to burn for fuel and for medicinal plants to use or sell. Strategies need to be put into place to provide communities with alternative livelihoods that reduce the impact of plant harvesting and poaching. Other methods to protect the panda’s habitat are to provide villages with alternative energy sources to reduce logging, and to train communities in sustainable logging methods and other activities that generate income, such as ecotourism.
Reducing communities’ dependence on the panda’s habitat may work in the short term, but there is a much bigger challenge facing the panda, and indeed the rest of the world: climate change.
Models from the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park show that in the next 80 years, changes in climate could cause a reduction of 35-40% of panda habitat, wiping out the progress made by creating bamboo corridors and reducing logging. Not only does the reduction in habitat size mean that there are fewer places for the pandas to live, but the habitats will be up to 4 times more fragmented than currently, reducing the ability for pandas to travel and breed.
Climate change will also cause the panda’s habitat to shift as the planet’s temperature increases and vegetation is forced to move in order to stay in a temperature range at which it can survive. Unfortunately for the panda, this means being forced into mountainous regions, where they prefer not to feed as it is difficult for them to sit and manipulate bamboo. There is also a higher energetic cost of moving on steep slopes, and for an animal that already has to eat 12-38kg of bamboo to meet their energy needs, expending more energy would require them to eat even more of their limited food source.
Aside from preventing future global temperature increases, it may be possible to help pandas prepare for the effects of climate change. Li et al. (2015) recommend protecting and introducing bamboo species in climatically suitable areas to help pandas adapt to future climate change, as well as increasing the connectivity between habitats to ensure good genetic diversity and to increase the viability of the populations – these are integral to the long-term survival of a species.
Looking ahead, the Chinese State Forestry Administration is fully aware that panda conservation needs to continue in order to avoid losing the progress that has been gained. There are plans to continue investing in habitat protection, to monitor the panda population, and to develop the capacity of the nature reserve staff. These plans are essential if we are to see a continued increase in the panda population, and for pandas to survive despite the looming threat of climate change.