Anyone who has woken up to read about the reclassification of species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List will be experiencing mixed emotions. The fantastic news that the giant panda has been downgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable has been somewhat levelled by the news that we are one step closer to wiping out our closest relatives. After suffering a 70% collapse in population numbers over the past twenty years, the eastern gorilla is now critically endangered, meaning four of our six great apes are at risk of extinction.
This is obviously devastating news – but it is important not to let this take away from the success of the pandas. This is a rare conservation success story and we should celebrate it.
Once widespread throughout Southern China, the giant panda is now confined to the western extremities of its previous habitat. Range contraction first began in the Pleistocene as a result of a warming climate and disappearance of their primary food source, bamboo. However, the rapid decline in population over recent years is attributed primarily to conversion of bamboo forests to agricultural land and human population expansion.
Since noticing a nearly 50% decline in population size between 1974 and 1985, the giant panda has been the focus of one of the most intensive and high-profile campaigns to recover and endangered species. This campaign has been the subject of much criticism over the years, with many conservations arguing that the money spent on trying to save what many considered to be a hopeless case, could be better spent successfully conserving huge numbers of other species. Criticism even came from within; Dr. Sarah Bexell from the Chengdu Research Base suggested that captive breeding efforts were failing. Since 1987, the research centre has produced 400 offspring, only five of which were introduced to the wild. Only three of these survived.
Despite this, the giant panda has remained an icon of conservation and, with a 17% population increase between 2004 and 2014, it is hard to disagree that the campaign is working. There are now 1,864 giant pandas in the wild (an estimated 2060 if you include cubs). Since the 1980’s, much work has gone into trying to change the panda’s fate. China banned trading panda skins in 1981 and, in 1988, Wildlife Protection Law conferred the highest protected status on the species. The panda reserve system was created in 1992; there are now 67 panda reserves which protect 67% of all wild pandas and 1.4 million hectares of habitat. Forest protection and reforestation projects have increased forest cover and supported a 12% increase in occupied habitat, with a further 6% of suitable habitat available but currently unoccupied. And it isn’t just good news for pandas – the species is also an excellent example of an umbrella species, conferring protection on countless other organisms. The biological diversity of panda reserves rivals that of tropical ecosystems.
However, much of the protected habitat is still highly fragmented; 223 pandas occupying 23 isolated patches are considered to be at serious risk. Currently, there is substantial genetic diversity within the giant panda population as a whole but, without improved habitat connectivity, many of the smaller populations are facing rapid declines in evolutionary potential.
Another big hurdle facing the pandas is climate change. Models suggest that a changing climate is likely to eliminate more than 35% of the pandas’ bamboo habitat. It is important to remember that these models are simplified and may not accurately account for shifting distributions of bamboo species. As it stands, however, panda populations are projected to decline over the next 80 years, reversing all progress made over the past two decades.
Although things are looking up for the pandas, they, along with nearly every other species, are facing new challenges every day as a result of climate change. This success story, however temporary, reinforces the importance of considering climate change in conservation work.
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