My social media has been awash with statuses and tweets praying for 2016 to come to an end. This year has indeed been significant for a number of reasons (a list that is too long for me to want to type), and clearly there could be a tendency to remember 2016 as a largely negative year. As winter draws close it seems appropriate to shine a light on a positive story that 2016 brought about.
A contentious debate exists within the conservation movement concerning whether we should really be saving the giant panda. This dispute stems from the inordinate amount of time and effort, and disproportionate amount of precious conservation funding, which is allocated to preserving the panda compared to other species. Opponents to such panda-centric conservation posit that funding would be better spent elsewhere. Indeed it is true that few conservation projects can claim to match the profile and intensity of efforts to save the giant panda. Moreover it is commonly remarked that the panda project is already a lost cause; that pandas find themselves in an evolutionary cul-de-sac characterised by a refusal to have sex and a restrictive bamboo-based diet.
Well as of this year the giant panda is no longer categorised as an endangered species. The official conservation status of the giant panda, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, has been downgraded from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Vulnerable’.This is in part because there are now an estimated 2060 pandas in the wild, a figure up from 1596 in a 2000-2004 census. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Director General Marco Lambertini summarised the scale of this success:
‘Knowing that the panda is now a step further from extinction is an exciting moment for everyone committed to conserving the world’s wildlife and their habitats . . . the recovery of the panda shows that when science, political will and engagement of local communities come together, we can save wildlife and also improve biodiversity.’
The Vulnerable status does of course mean that the job is far from complete. An issue of particular importance is the reduction in bamboo availability owing to climate change. The IUCN stated that climate change is predicted to reduce over 35% of bamboo habitat for giant pandas over the coming 80 years. Pandas are still indeed at risk and complacency cannot be allowed to creep in. Nonetheless this story must be celebrated as a remarkable success; one that shows conservation efforts do indeed pay off.
The reason for this success wasn’t that conservationists provided pandas with videos of other pandas mating, used an apple on a stick to tempt males into the mounting position or offered them Viagra (yes, these have all been tried). Instead effective panda conservation has involved the maintenance and restoration of suitable habitat.
Recent success is due to efforts in creating and maintaining reserves that help protect bamboo forests. In 1992 a panda reserve system was created to increase panda habitat. There are now 67 panda reserves in the country that protect approximately 5400 square miles. Approximately two thirds of all wild pandas reside within these reserves.
This leads to a second positive in the panda preservation story. A recent study published in the journal Conservation Biology examined the distribution of China’s endemic mammals, amphibians and birds. The study found that the range of the giant panda overlapped with 70% of forest bird species, 70% of forest mammals, and 31% of amphibians. The giant panda can therefore be considered an umbrella species. Protecting the panda indirectly protects a multitude of other species. The result being that when conservationists have been protecting panda habitat, they have also been helping to protect a great number of other species.
In the spirit of positivity, perhaps we should rethink our view of 2016. Rather than reflect on 2016 as a year marked by divisive politics and the loss of celebrated public figures perhaps, we should consider this year a conservation milestone – the year the giant panda was no longer considered endangered.
It can be all too easy to get down about conservation but the story of the giant panda is certainly an inspirational one. For a movement that relies so heavily on public interest and engagement it is important to give voice to successes when they occur.
A previous version of this blog was written (by the same author) for the Royal Society of Biology.
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