Recently the status of the giant panda has been downgraded from endangered to vulnerable, now that over 2,060 individuals are thought to be currently living in the wild. At their lowest numbers of 1,114, the future was looking quite bleak for these eucalyptus guzzling gentle giants, however, with a lot of effort and funding from the Chinese government the populations have managed to bounce back from the brink. So how has this been achieved and what can we learn to help save other species from the endangered list?
The Chinese Government invested a lot funds into establishing large reserves and extensive breeding programs, the protection of bamboo forests now covering 1400km2, cracking down on poachers and the trading of panda skins. As well as this, a poster child for their campaign, the WWF have been working with the government since 1981 to help protect their habitat and build a connected network of reserves for the giant pandas to be released into. There are now 67 panda reserves protecting almost 60% of all wild pandas. This in turn has provided protection for other endemic forest species; such as amphibians, birds and insects which also live in the bamboo thickets. The protection of the charismatic ‘umbrella species’, the giant panda, has therefore created a biodiversity hotspot where species can thrive in the protection provided by these reserves.
So is this where we should focus our conservation efforts? Not on campaigning to protect vast habitats, such as with MPAs or wetland habitats, but with key umbrella species such as the giant panda, where its protection provides habitat for a whole host of other species too? What if a habitat doesn’t have quite a fluffy cuddly character which the public can get behind, then how do you protect it? It has seemed to work in the case of the panda and has benefited a number of species as a result, not only because it is such a charismatic lovable creature, but also its significance in Chinese culture. The panda is an important symbol to represent friendship, peace, strength and good luck, and an emblem of the country itself.
So is the Giant Panda now saved from extinction? Well unfortunately its not completely out of the woods yet. Large-scale disturbances such as mining, tourism and urban development still threaten their habitat. Although some of their habitat has now been restored, bamboo forests are also showing signs of retreating due to the effects of climate change, putting further pressure on their existing habitats and likely pushing them to higher altitudes making populations more isolated.
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