One World Conservation is thrilled to continue publishing our first blog series, Endangered Species 101. Every post will cover a different threatened or endangered species, how they are being impacted in their wild environments, and how you can make a difference.
Universally iconic, socially, politically, and culturally, giant pandas are closely monitored by the world, and transactions involving them often take years and can even involve federal governments. In turn, the species’ downgrade in the the International Conservation Union of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List last September—as its status turns from “endangered” to “vulnerable”—is transcendental in symbolism and a much needed validation.
These baby-like and often anthropomorphized creatures first came under the spotlight as threatened in 1974 when the government conducted a census that found little more than 2,400 giant pandas in the wild. The cause became even more urgent ten years later when the second census in the mid-1980s found a significant drop of the population: A loss of over 50% since the first census, citing numbers as low as 1,216. This startled the Chinese government and the global conservation community into a frenzy, pulling together one of the most intensive efforts to revive a species in history. Since then the giant panda has gained transcendent popularity as the focus of many high profile campaigns and has been relentlessly marketed as a conservation symbol, perhaps most notably as the World Wildlife Fund’s logo.
Over the decades, the scientific research incentive to understand the giant panda, its declining numbers and countermeasures, and political will and attention to take action for the species have led to immense success, corroborated not just by the recent removal of the “endangered” label, but also by all and every little setback and victory on the journey. That’s not to say we’re anywhere near the end of the road, simply that it seems fitting to take a glance near the start of 2017 at a panorama of the progress made for this species that we all can learn and be inspired by.
As a result of all the efforts, major issues such as habitat loss and poaching have been vastly improved and precautions are executed with great attention.
Threats to Species
The biggest factor for decline of the giant panda is habitat loss. In the past century, through industrialization efforts and as the Chinese population doubled to to 1.3 billion, the Chinese encroached with axes in hand into the once undisturbed and distant forests of giant pandas that used to spread over half of southeast China. As trees were logged down for fuel and other uses, bamboo, which require shade and moisture, was left bare to wilt and die under the sun.
Until the 1990s, China’s demand for timber and other resources have erased the pandas’ historically vast, forested terrains to individual, separate crumbs in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi. In 1992, the reserve system was established and has increased in recent years to include 67 preserves where 66% of wild pandas are protected to roam free in the Minshan and Qinling Mountains.
Other acts to curtail logging and protect forests in general (National Forest Conservation Act of 1997) have been successful as well. Current efforts to increase connectivity between fragmented habitats include creations of habitat corridors and limitation of human disturbance.
Poaching was the other big factor that threatened the population. In the early 1900s, pandas were already internationally known as a political symbol and an exotic and rare animal; therefore, their pelage was highly sought after by museums and collectors with incredulous price tags that went well up into the forty thousands in illegal markets. Domestic demands due to use in medicine, crafts, and other purposes also add fuel to the trade. The Chinese government took drastic and harsh measures against hunting, killing, and trading in the 1980s, with laws that make such felonies punishable by death. Reports show that of crimes committed against giant pandas, four convicts have been sentenced to death and dozens have received life in jail. Because of the laws in place and the precedents set, today giant pandas are generally safe from poaching threats.
The actions taken to counteract poaching and habitat loss are proven positive upon the evident resurging panda population. However, as the IUCN warns, there are plenty of ongoing problems and potential issues concerning giant pandas to keep an eye on. International organizations and the Chinese government alike are still working hard to improve ongoing issues, e.g. habitat fragmentation, and of course, the exacerbation of the problem by climate change.
A global phenomenon, climate change effects all animals and every aspect of our world. Pandas are no exception. As global warming continues, the agricultural value of panda habitats may increase substantially, bringing new pressure for cultivation of these lands. In addition, climate change may endanger certain bamboo species, the only food source to the giant pandas. Many known species of bamboo synchronize in growth, flowering together, and in death, dying off all at once. These “mass synchronous die-off events” within a species of bamboo only mean pandas may one day be left with all or nothing, which in this case will lead to extreme food shortage.
Additionally, pandas are also under threat of future potential problems. Researchers have listed tourism, new parasites and pathogens from domestic animals, air- and water-borne contaminants, and livestock grazing as new possibilities that may arise in the rest of the century.
These elusive creatures have thrived for more than 3 million years in harmony with humans. Yet as researchers predict, by the end of the century (that is within 80 years), there's a 37-100% chance of losing all habitats. The giant panda’s resurgence affirms the foundational belief that efforts will yield and is the best evidence and motivation we can ask for as we cross into a fresh chapter of new possibilities.