Giant Pandas 101
The population of endangered wild giant pandas has risen some 17 percent in just over a decade, the Chinese government reported this week, news that a major wildlife group cites as evidence that the famous mammal, a cultural icon for China and a conservation icon for much of the world, is on the rebound.
China, which is home to all the world’s wild pandas, held its fourth National Giant Panda Survey, an intensive effort to count pandas that’s supported in part by the World Wildlife Fund. The Chinese government has not released the full report with data, though they provided some numbers to WWF.
Those statistics say there are now 1,864 wild giant pandas living in central China’s Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu Provinces. That’s up from 1,596 estimated animals in a 2003 report, the last time giant pandas were surveyed.
However, some in the conservation community suggest that the new numbers may be due in part to wider surveying and an improvement in surveying techniques, though few doubt the upward trajectory reported by the Chinese. (See more panda pictures.)
According to the recently released numbers, around 67 percent of wild pandas live within the country’s 67 nature reserves. That means about a third of them remain outside of protected areas.
Of those 67, 27 are newly created reserves since the 2003 survey.
The rise in panda population is “a testament to the commitment made by the Chinese government for the last 30-plus years” to help this iconic species, said Ginette Hemley, WWF’s senior vice president of wildlife conservation.
Pandas don’t exactly line up to be counted; surveyors walk the land and examine scat samples that contain bamboo, measuring intact fragments—which suggest bite size and help to distinguish between different animals.
A newer approach, taking DNA from fecal and mucus samples, can yield higher numbers than the traditional methods, said Marc Brody, senior adviser for conservation and sustainable development at China’s Wolong Nature Reserve, which breeds pandas in captivity. (Watch a video of pandas in Wolong Nature Reserve.)
The latest survey relied on both methods, though unevenly applied.
Also, some argue this survey can’t legitimately be compared to previous ones, as a much larger area was covered this time around.
While Chinese facilities such as Wolong have seen major successes in panda captive breeding in the last decade, aims to release animals into the wild face roadblocks in the coming years.
So far, scientists have attempted four reintroductions of captive-bred pandas with little success. Xue Xue, a female released into the wild in October 2014, died a month later, possibly from a rat bite. (Read about the costs of breeding pandas in National Geographic magazine.)
Save the Pandas’... Habitat?
Perhaps the biggest roadblock is that habitat for pandas is fragmented and extremely constrained—hemmed in by agriculture to the south and east, and by mountains and arid lands to the north and west, where bamboo (the panda’s primary food) dies back in winter.
“Pandas became endangered in the first place because in order to avoid human activity they had to retreat to very thin bands of land around the western and northern parts of the Sichuan Basin,” said Brody, who is also a National Geographic grantee and founder of the nonprofit Panda Mountain.
He says the next wave of effort needs to focus on habitat restoration—regenerating the bamboo forests that were once more widespread—to expand the areas in which these animals can survive.
Brody and WWF scientists also emphasize the need to connect fragmented habitat through wildlife corridors, which prevent human infrastructure like roads from cutting panda groups off from one another and from food sources.
Brody added there needs to be better training for personnel working in protected areas and more attention on the effects of tourism into panda habitat, an economically important activity that can take a heavy toll on both land and animals.
“We are still far below the original census, when there were 2,800 pandas in the wild,” he said. “While we are working our way back to stable wild populations, new development pressures from tourism, vineyards, and other land uses” could slow or halt progress.
Brody added that wild pandas face another impending challenge—climate change is also projected to affect ecologically sensitive, higher elevation mountain ecosystems, and therefore pandas, in the coming decades. That means there’s even greater urgency to restore and connect panda-friendly habitat, he said, so the bears can move between suitable areas if climate change triggers a blooming and die back of bamboo forests.
Restoring lands is a harder sell to the public than breeding pandas, of course: “Captive pandas are irresistible, and it’s easy to document breeding success,” Brody said. (Related: “Is Breeding Pandas in Captivity Worth It?”)
“So if we can couple China’s remarkably successful breeding programs with land restoration and linking of habitat, we have a much better chance at success.”
It’s wonderful to bring beautiful panda babies into the world, he said, “but we also have to ensure those young pandas have a home in the wild.”
Follow Jennifer S. Holland on Twitter.