Pandas are the world’s most famous endangered animal. Their survival is threatened mostly by loss of habitat, and this is related to economic and population growth in China. Poaching can also be a problem. One reason the panda is so vulnerable is that bamboo dies off periodically after blooming and pandas so dislike people that they would starve rather than cross an inhabited area to find a fresh source of food.The slow reproductive rate of pandas makes reviving their population difficult.
Another problem is inbreeding. Inbreeding can make it difficult for pandas to reproduce and makes them vulnerable to disease. Genetic studies though have shown that inbreeding is not a problem.Existing pandas are doing pretty well. One area studied by Chinese naturalist Pan Wenshi in the Qin Ling mountains in Shaanxi with a population of 80 pandas recorded 11 birth and 4 deaths in a seven month period. Also encouraging are the results of recent censuses of panda populations. (See Panda Numbers).
Barney Long, director of species conservation at Global Wildlife Conservation, told National Geographic Traveller that only nine of some 33 panda subpopulations “are really viable,” with enough animals to persist long term. According to the magazine: Climate change is bound to make this worse: Scientific models warn that in the next 70 years, warming could reduce the remaining giant panda habitat by nearly 60 percent. At least for now, rebuilding, connecting, and protecting habitat may be the best focus for panda conservation. On the positive side poaching isn’t a problem anymore. “Other troubles remain, such as livestock grazing in panda habitat. “Horses and pandas both like gentle slopes and bamboo forests; horses also eat bamboo. So the impact of horses on panda conservation is significant,” says China West Normal University’s Zhang Jindong. In 2012 the local government ordered horses removed from the forests and urged people “to raise yaks and other animals instead,” he says. But those animals’ presence also spurs pandas to move, he says—“and where can they go?” [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic Traveller, August, 2016
Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article wikipedia.org ; National Zoo nationalzoo.si.edu ; Pandas International pandasinternational.org ; World Wildlife Fund worldwildlife.org Book: “Last Panda” by George Schaller (University of Chicago). Facilities: Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Center; Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base; Living National Treasures: China lntreasures.com/china ; Animal Info animalinfo.org
Giant Pandas No Longer 'Endangered' As Numbers Exceed 1,800
In 2021, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment said that China’s population of giant pandas was to over 1,800 and the animal was not longer considered “endangered”. Instead it is now classified as “vulnerable” Cui Shuhong, the ministry’s director, said that the panda population growth can be credited to China's reserves. Giant Panda Survey conducted with the help of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2014 estimated 1,864 pandas live in the wild, up 17 percent from 2003. Their geographic range increased by nearly 12 in that time, according to the survey. [Source: Marina Pitofsky, USA TODAY, July 12, 2021]
The giant pandas were initially moved off of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of endangered species in 2016. At that time The Telegraph reported:“The WWF, described the results for the animals as "hugely encouraging"."It is a significant conservation success following years of enormous efforts on the part of the Chinese Government, communities and non-governmental organisations,” said Glyn Davies, executive director of global programmes at WWF-UK, said. However the IUCN said climate change was predicted to wipe out more than a third (35 per cent) of the panda's bamboo habitat, which could reverse the gains.[Source: Sarah Knapton, The Telegraph, September 4, 2016]
The 2016 announcement was not embraced by Chinese officials. “If we downgrade their conservation status, or neglect or relax our conservation work, the populations and habitats of giant pandas could still suffer irreversible loss and our achievements would be quickly lost,” the forestry administration told The Associated Press at the time. “Therefore, we’re not being alarmist by continuing to emphasize the panda species’ endangered status.”
One threat that pandas face is natural: sporadic bamboo die-offs which occur every 40 to 120 years. Bamboo usually reproduces by sending up new shoots, but for reasons not yet understood from time to time the plants flower, seed and then die off en masse. Sometimes, all of the bamboo across in an entire region suddenly die offs in one fell swoop.
Most pandas are able to survive a die-off by finding bamboo somewhere or switching to another species of the plant, but some die-offs result in the death of hundreds of pandas. The last major die-off occurred in 1983. Scientist anticipated the event since some bamboo bloomed prematurely the year before. Even though dozens of pandas died, many animals that might have died were saved by being moved to areas where there was sufficient bamboo.
In the 1970s more than 130 pandas died when a species of bamboo found in the Minshan mountains in Sichuan flowered and died. In the old days when die offs occurred it was easer for panda’s to simply migrate to an area with more bamboo. But these days their habitats are fragmented and human settlements may block them from reaching bamboo supplies.
During the bamboo die-off in the 1980s, many pandas wandered into villages. Some were rescued and formed the early core of the panda conservation program.
Pandas and Loss of Habitat
Deforestation and loss of habitat Loss of habitat is the primary threat to giant pandas. Between the 1950s and the early 2000s, four-fifths of their habitat disappeared. At that time it was estimated only 10,000 square kilometers of prime panda habitat remained in only 30 counties. Because the population of giant pandas are divided into around two dozen isolated populations there is a risk of inbreeding and potential for a loss of genetic diversity. [Source: Science Museum of China kepu.net.cn]
As China’s human population has grown the panda’s habitat has shrunk. Since the 1960s the panda’s habitat has shrunk by half, most of it destroyed by peasants and loggers who cut down the bamboo or log trees that provide shade and moisture to bamboo which often dies after prolonged exposure to the sun. Only six forested "island habitats" are left in China and many conservationists fear the small isolated panda populations may suffer from inbreeding. Nature reserves protect only about half of the remaining panda habitat. One in three wild panda’s lives outside nature reserve borders.
One WWF official said that giant pandas could become extinct in one or two generations as rapid development in China divides its habitat into increasingly smaller patches, preventing the animals from roaming freely over a large range, The biggest concern is that if the habitat fragments too much males and females look to mate will not be able to find each other.
The construction of roads, railways and dams and the development of industrial areas and mines have also eaten away at the panda’s habitat. One of the big problems in areas where pandas reside is that both pandas and people prefer living in valleys than on the slopes of the mountains. The mixed groves of trees and bamboo in the valleys are often where pandas eat. They are also where villagers go to collect firewood.
The number of pandas at Wolong reserve in Sichuan dropped by half (from 145 to 72) in its first 11 years for existence, four times faster than before the reserve was established. The loss was due to loss of bamboo forest, caused in part by population pressures in turn caused by new arrivals to the area who hoped to make money from the tourist trade. Some of the panda's forest were chopped down to provide charcoal for making smoked pork, which was sold to tourists.
Hundreds of pandas have been killed by poachers. Conservationists were stunned in 1988 when the Chinese announced that they had recovered 146 panda pelts in recent years. Some pandas are killed by snares intended, not for them, but for musk deer whose glands secrete a valuable folk medicine and perfumes. In the 1980s most panda pelts were sold in Taiwan---and to a lesser degree in Japan and Hong Kong. [National Geographic Geographica, October 1992].
Hunting pandas was legal in China until the 1960s. In the Qin Ling mountains in Shaanxi six pandas were lost to poachers in ten years. In 1983 the People's Daily reported that a panda with radio-collar was caught in steel trap and strangled to death by a man living near the Wolong reserve who took the carcass home and ate it. The man was imprisoned for two years.
Selling panda pelts and killing pandas is now a crime punishable by death, and at least five peasants have been executed. In 1990, two Sichuan men were publicly executed after they were found with four panda skins. The minimum sentence is 12 years. In 2007 there were reports by state forestry officials of villagers being persuaded to hunt pandas and trade their pelts in southwestern Sichuan.
Pandas and the 2008 Earthquake in Sichuan
Much of the panda’s habitat was affected by the earthquake in Sichuan 2008. By some estimates an area where 80 percent of pandas live suffered some degree of destruction by the quake and 10 percent was destroyed.. In some places entire mountains were sheered off by landslides, river were blocked with debris and soil was washed away by floods. The landslides and floods continued for weeks after the quake.
The Sichuan earthquake devastated huge tracts of bamboo forest, causing pandas to face severe food shortages. According to WWF, the 8.0-magnitude earthquake affected 83 percent of the giant pandas' habitat in the region. It also badly damaged the Longxi Hongkou nature reserve and destroyed protection systems above 2,000 meters that took 30 years to put in place. Twenty-seven of Sichuan's 40-something giant panda nature reserves were hit.
The Wolong Center suffered serious damage during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Fourteen of the 32 panda houses were destroyed. Some were smashed by truck-size boulders. The main roads leading to the center were made unusable by landslides and severe road damage. The reserve was just 18 miles away from the earthquake’s epicenter in Wenchuan and located in narrow valley vulnerable to landslides. No tourists were injured. Five staff members were killed but none of them were at the center. Forty people were killed in the entire area. The Sichuan earthquake devastated bamboo forests in the Wolong Reserve. Bamboo had to rationed at the research and breeding center. Pandas that normally produce 10 kilograms of feces a day produced only two kilograms.
Some pandas were trembling in the trees, Others were lying still, a clear sign they were traumatized. Each cub was carried out by bus to Wolong town and spent the night there with their keepers. One panda was crushed to death when boulders and debris caused her concrete enclosure to collapse. Another disappeared. One, whose enclosure was smashed, made a run for it and needed 100 people to rescue her. On the traumatized pandas, one person at the center told the Los Angeles Times, “They went up the trees and wouldn’t come down.” Eight pandas from Wolong were brought to Beijing Zoo and featured before and during the Olympics. Wolong Center was closed for about a year.
Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic Traveller: The 2008 earthquake gave the government fodder to persuade villagers living in bear habitat to move. Officials built a series of lowland villages to house many of the displaced and declared a victory for panda conservation.
Efforts to Save Panda Habitats
Since the 1980s, the number of nature reserves where hunting, trapping and logging are banned has increased to 60 from 13. A logging ban in 1998 helped stop the decline in their numbers, but large-scale infrastructure construction and a devastating earthquake in May 2008 have damaged their food source and migration routes.
In 1994, the Chinese government approved a $100 million, 10 year plan that would double the number of panda reserves, find new jobs for timber workers who logged the reserves, relocate peasants and establish "green corridors" to link up breeding areas. Conservationists were pleased with the plan but some were worried it would be compromised by corruption and lack of financial accountability.
The 1998 floods along the Yangtze River that left thousands of people dead and millions homeless ended up helping pandas. The floods were blamed in part of logging, which deprives river banks of water-absorbing tree cover. The government banned tree-felling across a wide area, including much of the pandas' habitat. [Source: The Economist, December 19, 2007]
Laws have been passed forbidding the cutting of trees, farming, hunting and even walking in panda habitats. Bamboo forests are being planted, corridors are being created between their reserves and large blocks of undeveloped forests. Rewards equivalent to two years of salary for an average Chinese have been offered to anyone who helps a starving panda. The Wolong Center is involved in promoting bamboo growth. In the Qin Ling mountains, where logging caused one group of 20 pandas to "split up and join other groups,” the Chinese government pledged $3 million to reorganize a local logging company into five separate factories and put 2,300 former loggers to work making paper products, biofertilizer and other goods. Thirty polluting factories in the Ya’an area, were pandas live, have been closed to help protect pandas.
Perhaps the thing that has helped pandas the most has been raising the level of awareness among members of the Chinese government and the Chinese public. China now sees panda protection as a matter of national pride. When 36-year-old Mei Mei, China’s oldest captive panda, died on in July 2005 at the Guilin City Zoo mourners formed long line to pay their last respects.
Problems Protecting Pandas
Despite the efforts to relocate them, a lot people, many of them Tibetans, Dong tribesmen and other minorities, remain living in panda territory. Those that live in and around the parks have no electricity and generally rely on firewood to heat their homes and cook their meals. The chopping down of trees stunts the growth of the bamboo that the pandas eat.
Finding new homes ofr the people that live in reserves is one of the biggest problems with creating a panda reserve. In the Wolong panda reserve the Chinese government attempted to relocate 4,000 villagers to new government-built housing. The villagers, most of them minorities, refused to move and continued to cut bamboo and timber for firewood.
It is estimated that it will cost about $80 million to pay loggers and peasant farmers to move out of areas inhabited by pandas. The Chinese government has only budgeted $13 million for the effort, the remainder it is hoped will be provided by international conservation groups.
A 1998 ban on commercial logging has stopped large-scale timber harvesting but illegal logging persists.
The number of panda reserves rose from 12 in the 1970s to 67 in 2016. Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic Traveller: This makes pandas “on paper, the most protected animal on the planet. But many of these reserves are very small, populated by villagers, and cut up by roads, farms, and other human constructions. More than a third of wild pandas live or venture beyond reserves’ invisible boundaries anyway, says Smithsonian ecologist William McShea, where habitat may be marginal. Because of the emphasis on regional economic development, “officials may say yes to hydroelectric dams, highways, and mining operations” inside panda habitat with no thought of long-term effects, he says. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic Traveller, August, 2016]
In the 1970s, more than 10,120 square kilometers was set aside for pandas. There were about 60 reserves for pandas in 2010 up from 13 in the 1990s. Setting aside these reserves is credited with saving the panda. The World Wide Fund of Nature wants to expand existing panda reserves so that panda habitats are protected by buffer zones from human populations and have corridors that allow members of different population to mate to prevent inbreeding.
In 1963, the first four natural reserves for the protection of rare animals like the giant panda and forest ecological system were established at 1) Wanglang of Pingwu County, 2) Jiuzaizigou of Beichuan County, 3) Baihe of Jiuzaigou County and 4) Labahe of Tianquan county, covering an area of 919 square kilometers. By 1983, the number of natural reserves for the protection of rare animals like the giant panda and forest ecological system expanded to 13, and covered an area of 5,830 square kilometers in total. In 1992, the China Protecting the Giant Panda and its Habitat project was launched to establish another 15 natural reserves, covering 4,8420 square kilometers, while further improving and managing the existing natural reserves for the giant panda. In addition, 17 ecological corridor zones for the giant panda have been established to increase the genetic exchange between different groups and maintain the genetic diversity of giant pandas.The Home of the Giant Panda — Wolong. [Source: Science Museum of China kepu.net.cn]
Large-scale investigations on giant panda populations and habitats conducted by the National Forestry Office in 1974-1977, 1985-1987, and 1999-2002 were used to set the borders and conditions for 39 natural reserves, mainly for the protection of the giant panda, covering an area of 20,565 square kilometers as of the early 2000s. At that time another 22 giant panda reserves were slated to be set up: five in Sichuan, 13 in the southern side of Chinling Mountain of Shanxi province, and one in Wenxian County of Gansu Province. These measures have placed almost all the habitat of giant panda under protection.
Wolong Nature Reserve
Wolong Nature Reserve (120 kilometers northwest of Chengdu, two hour by bus from Chengdu) is the panda reserve most visited by Western scientists and tourists. The terrain is rugged and the bamboo forest are so dense that likelihood of seeing a panda in the wild is rare. Tourists are often restricted from going much of anywhere anyway. Most visitors stay close to the big research center and veterinary hospital. Wolong means “sleeping dragon."
Set up in 1963, Wolong Reserve covers 500,000 acres (800 square miles) and is home to about 150 pandas as well 20 kinds of reptile, 280 species of bird and 4,000 species of plant . Among the 96 mammal species are endangered golden monkeys, which travel in groups up to 300 animals; takin, a strange looking animal related to the musk ox; and tufted deer, which have odd-looking, protruding canine teeth. Around 3,000 people, most of then members of the Tibetan-like Qiang minority, farm some of the slopes in the reserve.
The first organized census of pandas in the 1970s counted about 2,500 in the wild. In the 1980s, the count dropped to 1,114. The one conducted in 2000-2001, showed just 1,596 pandas living in the wild in China. Since then, China's breakneck growth and construction of roads, railroads and utility lines have driven the panda population into isolated mountain enclaves, where they are vulnerable to inbreeding and starvation. Despite this their numbers have increased. A 2006 survey by the Chinese Academy of Sciences found 66 pandas in the Wanglang reserve in Sichuan province, double an earlier estimate.
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, In 2012 more than 100 people fanned out “across 12,000 square miles of treacherous mountain passes in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, stalking the giant panda or its droppings... Panda droppings are pale green and look a little like bundles of twigs. When the team finds them, a junior researcher accompanying Dai does a maneuver that any U.S. dog owner would recognize, grabbing it with his hand inside a plastic bag that he then turns inside out and ties shut. With a handheld GPS device, the team also records the precise locations where excrement is found. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2011]
Each panda's droppings are a signature, varying according to how thoroughly the animal chomps the bamboo. Back at the lab, researchers extract and measure the stalks of bamboo. By studying the samples and their locations, the scientists can get a rough idea of how many pandas are in a particular area. For this census, they will also conduct DNA analysis of the poop.
"It's much harder to do a census of pandas than of people. With a human census, people talk to people. You have no other way of communicating with the pandas," says Hong Mingsheng, one of the researchers.
Sarah Bexell, director of conservation research at the Chengdu Research Base, where pandas are bred in captivity for reintroduction into the wild, says this type of census is "at best a guesstimate" and that she doubts that the numbers are increasing. "There is no way it could have gone up," says Bexell, who is also a research scholar at the University of Denver. "The Chinese government is trying so terribly hard to protect their national treasure, but until humans globally get our population under control and our consumption habits under control, it's impossible to save wildlife." She's not optimistic about the future of the panda and says that even captive breeding facilities are "just a game, waylaying the reality."
Studying Pandas and Looking for Them in the Wild
Studying pandas is difficult because their habitat is so mountainous, steep and densely forested. Bamboo forests are particularly thick and difficult to navigate through. Scientists researching pandas in the wild subdue pandas with tranquilizer guns, hire farmers to carry them, and extract blood samples for genetic studies. Modern techniques used in the study of pandas includes using satellites to determine the extent and conditions of their habitat; using heat-sensing camera traps to document animals; and outfitting pandas with radio transmitters. China has declined to allow much of this kind of research out worries of harming the pandas.
Reporting from Sanhe, China, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “If pandas weren't so darn cute, we wouldn't be up in the clouds at the edge of a mountain ravine slick with moss and mud, clinging for life to shoots of bamboo. And get this: There is almost zero chance that we'll actually see a panda. We keep our eyes on the ground, not just to keep from falling, but because the best we can hope for is to discover panda droppings (and even the chances of that aren't so hot). "To be honest, I've been working in these mountains for 20 years and I've never seen a panda in the wild," says Dai Bo, 43, a wildlife biologist with China's Forestry Ministry who's wearing a camouflage jacket and hiking boots and has a zoom-lens Canon around his neck, just in case. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2011]
Dai is leading a six-person team through the fog-shrouded mountains of Sichuan province to conduct the first census in a decade of China's endangered panda population. Although Dai's specialty is predatory birds, all wildlife researchers are being pressed into service whether they love pandas or not, and one does sense a certain panda fatigue. "If you're in Sichuan province, you've got to study pandas," Dai says with resignation. On a recent day, a few census workers convene 120 miles southwest of Chengdu in Sanhe, a mountain village where corn hangs drying from the rafters of wooden houses and women carry baskets of mountain herbs on their backs. After a night in an unheated guesthouse with concrete floors, the workers divide into groups. Dai's team takes off in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, bouncing down a dirt road to the base of a mountain called Daping, part of the Xiangling range.
A 72-year-old villager, a stocky man carrying a sickle to cut through the underbrush, serves as a guide. He scrambles uphill like a goat, pausing from time to time to roll and smoke a cigarette, looking down with contempt at the scientists and journalists laboring to catch up. Underfoot, the ground is dense with moldering wood and moss. The slopes are lush with firs, cedars, palms and ficus and plenty of good things to eat: wild kiwis, hazelnuts and fire berries from the pyracantha bush. But pandas prefer bamboo, which they consume in copious quantities.
On Daping mountain, the bamboo grows as thick as a man's thumb and is closely spaced like the bars of a cage. The guide swings his sickle to clear a path, but it's no use: Runners wrap around our feet and prickly branches grab at our hair. "The bamboo is too dense here. No good for big animals," says the villager, Yang Pingfang. It turns out to be a frustrating day. In more than nine hours of hiking, the team finds no panda droppings, only the excrement of a black bear, which looks like spilled coffee grounds. "Anybody who has experienced our work knows it is not that glamorous. It is sometimes boring and lonely," says junior researcher Yang Yi, 30, who estimates he will cover nearly 900 miles over the next year for the panda census.
At nightfall, waiting for the jeep to pick them up, the scientists chat with villagers, who during the day had said they seldom see pandas in the wild. Their stories seem to grow more fanciful with the consumption of baijiu, the strong white alcohol favored in the Chinese countryside. "Oh yes, I saw a panda sitting in a tree. It fell down right in front of me," says Feng Quanwu, 50. "We see pandas more often now, so we think there must be more than in the 1980s."
Image Sources: 1) Xinhua; 2) Mongabey ; 3) Panda ailumela; 4) Nolls China website ; 5) WWF; 6) Beifan
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated July 2022