Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
Zoo Atlanta
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A giant panda at Zoo Atlanta. The iconic black-and-white mammal is slowly recovering in the wild.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
Zoo Atlanta

Giant Pandas, Symbol of Conservation, Are No Longer Endangered

Great apes, meanwhile, are plummeting toward extinction, an international group of conservation experts announced Sunday.

Efforts to save the giant panda, a worldwide symbol of wildlife conservation for half a century, are paying off: The iconic black-and-white bear is no longer endangered, the international body for species protection said on Sunday.

Giant Pandas 101

Native to Chinese bamboo forests, the panda was upgraded from endangered to vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species, managed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The newest update to the list includes 82,954 species, 23,928 of which are threatened with extinction. (Also see “20,000 Species Are Near Extinction: Is it Time to Rethink How We Decide Which to Save?”)

Giant panda populations in the wild have risen steadily by 17 percent in the decade up to 2014, when a nationwide census found 1,850 giant pandas in the wild in China. That’s up from the last census of 1,600 animals in 2003.

“It’s a good day to be a panda,” said Ginette Hemley, senior vice president for wildlife conservation at WWF, a nonprofit whose logo is the giant panda. “We’re thrilled.”

Success for the giant panda, endangered since 1990, is thanks to two factors: A marked decrease in poaching, which was rampant in the 1980s; and a huge expansion of the animal’s protected habitat. (Also read “Pandas Get to Know Their Wild Side.”)

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The Bornean orangutan and Sumatran orangutan (pictured, an individual at Rolling Hills Zoo) are now listed as critically endangered.

China now has 67 panda reserves, which are similar to U.S. national parks, says Hemley. She also noted that the Tibetan antelope, an endangered species slaughtered in past decades for its fine fur, is also recovering. The mountain species is now listed as near-threatened, according to the Red List.

“This is a deserved status,” says M. Sanjayan, senior scientist at the nonprofit Conservation International. “The Chinese government has put in 30 years of hard work in pandas—[they are] not going to let the panda go extinct.”

However, Marc Brody, senior adviser for conservation and sustainable development at China’s Wolong Nature Reserve, says "it is too early to conclude that pandas are actually increasing in the wild—perhaps we are simply getting better at counting wild pandas."

"While the Chinese government deserves credit and support for recent progress in management of both captive and wild giant pandas ... there is no justifiable reason to downgrade the listing from endangered to threatened," he says.

"In fact, 'suitable' or quality panda habitat is in fact decreasing from ongoing fragmentation from highway construction, active tourism development in Sichuan Province, and other human economic activities."

Great Apes In Trouble

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The western lowland gorilla (seen at the Gladys Porter Zoo) is critically endangered.

However, the announcement had sobering developments for some of our kin: The largest living primate, Africa’s eastern gorilla, is now critically endangered, having declined 70 percent over the past 20 years.

“We are the only one species of great ape that is not threatened with extinction,” says Carlo Rondinini, who coordinates the IUCN’s Global Mammal Assessment Program.

Poaching for wildlife trade and bush meat, as well as massive habitat destruction, has devastated most populations.

“We are eating our closest living relatives into oblivion,” says Sanjayan.

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A baby Bornean orangutan hugs her adoptive mother, a Bornean-Sumatran cross.

Hunting is the biggest problem for the Grauer’s gorilla, a subspecies that has fallen from nearly 17,000 in 1994 to fewer than 4,000 in 2015.

“Critical endangered status will raise the profile of this gorilla subspecies and bring attention to its plight,” Andrew Plumptre, lead author of the revised Grauer’s listing and senior conservationist in the Uganda Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a statement. “It has tended to be the neglected ape in Africa, despite being the largest ape in the world.”

The report also highlighted "devastating impacts of invasive species"—87 percent of the 415 plants native to Hawaii are threatened with extinction, according to the Red List. “When we lose plants, we lose irreplaceable cultural treasures,” says Matt Keir, a member of the IUCN’s Hawaiian Plant Specialist Group.

Not Out of the Woods

One bright spot is the mountain gorilla, a subspecies of the eastern gorilla whose population is not decreasing largely due to ecotourism in the Democractic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda, WWF’s Hemley says.

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Due to illegal hunting, the plains zebra (above, an individual at Zoo Atlanta) has moved from least concern to near threatened. The population has fallen by 24 percent in the past 14 years.

However, Hemley notes that the mountain gorilla population is still very small, under a thousand animals.

Likewise, the giant panda, at fewer than 2,000 individuals, is not out of the woods yet, she cautions. Several models predict climate change will wipe out more than 30 percent of the panda’s bamboo habitat in the next 80 years. (Read “Who Discovered the Panda?”)

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The yellow-backed duiker (pictured, an animal at the Gladys Porter Zoo) is one of three species of African antelope that have been listed as near threatened. Their numbers are falling due to illegal hunting and habitat loss.

So no one is resting on their laurels: Conservation is a “long-term endeavor,” Hemley says. (Get an exclusive look into how keepers raise a baby panda.)

Conservation International's Sanjayan agrees: “You celebrate the small victories, but you keep track of the war."

Overall, the panda's recent growth is a reminder “that conservation works,” adds Inger Andersen, IUCN’s director general.

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As with the two other duiker species, populations of the bay duiker (above, an animal at the Ellen Trout Zoo) are stable in protected areas, but are plummeting in other areas.

“We can move the dial on that barometer of life.”

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