The World of Chinese - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID DAW­SON

Giant pan­das, tech­ni­cally, are no longer en­dan­gered, but not all con­ser­va­tion­ists are cel­e­brat­ing. There is a con­sen­sus that the panda still needs plenty of help to sur­vive, par­tic­u­larly with cli­mate change im­pact­ing habi­tats.

On Septem­ber 4, the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture and Nat­u­ral Re­sources (IUCN) down­graded the sta­tus of giant pan­das from “en­dan­gered” to “vul­ner­a­ble”. As one of the world’s top wildlife bod­ies, the an­nounce­ment by the IUCN seemed to be a mas­sive con­ser­va­tion vic­tory, but the re­ac­tion in China was less than en­thu­si­as­tic.

IUCN uses seven cat­e­gories: ex­tinct, ex­tinct in the wild, crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, en­dan­gered, vul­ner­a­ble, near threat­ened, and least con­cern. It ap­pears, at first glance, that pan­das are mak­ing their way to safe num­bers. To back up the de­ci­sion, the IUCN’S re­port states: “An in­crease in avail­able habi­tat and an ex­pand­ing oc­cu­pied range pro­vide fur­ther sup­port for the con­tention that panda num­bers are in­creas­ing. For­est pro­tec­tion and re­for­esta­tion mea­sures have in­creased for­est cover in China and have sup­ported an 11.8 per­cent in­crease in oc­cu­pied habi­tat and 6.3 per­cent in­crease in un­oc­cu­pied but suit­able habi­tat.”

Based on a cen­sus con­ducted be­tween 2011 and 2014, the re­port es­ti­mates there are ap­prox­i­mately 2,060 pan­das liv­ing in the wild, of which about 9.6 per­cent are cubs and around 1,040 are ma­ture adults. This is a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment over past years, so there’s plenty of good news here for en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists to cel­e­brate.

Al­though the IUCN an­nounce­ment of the panda’s new sta­tus was made

It might be pre­ma­ture to claim mis­sion ac­com­plished on conser ving the giant panda


rel­a­tively re­cently, it was hardly a bolt out of the blue. For years, the sit­u­a­tion fac­ing pan­das has been im­prov­ing at a slow clip, as the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment poured wave af­ter wave of fund­ing into ef­forts at panda preser­va­tion—rang­ing from panda porn (for pan­das re­luc­tant to mate) to mas­sive panda preser­va­tion cen­ters and even 24-hour on­line live-stream­ing for pub­lic view­ing. At any Chi­nese zoo lucky enough to have pan­das, the panda en­clo­sure is al­ways, with­out ques­tion, the most well-main­tained.

Pan­das have al­ways been far more than just a mere an­i­mal. They are the world’s most ex­pen­sive an­i­mal to care for in cap­tiv­ity, a sym­bol of Chi­nese cul­ture, a tool for diplo­macy, and even the logo of the World Wide Fund for Na­ture (WWF). The re­sources that have been poured into pre­serv­ing this an­i­mal have pro­voked nu­mer­ous de­bates on the na­ture of con­ser­va­tion and how to de­ter­mine which an­i­mals are most worth sav­ing.

The ef­forts to pre­serve pan­das have been so in­tense that, in 2009, prom­i­nent Bri­tish con­ser­va­tion­ist and BBC pre­sen­ter Chris Pack­ham ar­gued that they should be al­lowed to go ex­tinct, on the ba­sis that the funds could be better spent else­where and that “cute­ness” should not be a key fac­tor in de­cid­ing which species to save. His com­ments set off a whirl­wind of com­men­tary that lasted for years, much of it out­raged. It didn’t help that in 2012, Dr. Sarah Bex­ell, a for­mer se­nior staff mem­ber at the Chengdu Re­search Base of Giant Panda Breed­ing, said that cap­tive-bred pan­das were gen­er­ally un­able to sur­vive in the wild, as ev­i­denced by pan­das that had been re­leased and promptly died.

So it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that the IUCN an­nounce­ment has evoked a wide range of re­sponses; from China it­self, there is a lot of skep­ti­cism that pan­das are on a safe path.

China’s State Forestry Ad­min­is­tra­tion, while no doubt ea­ger to claim some of the credit for the im­prove­ment in panda for­tunes, has pointed out that de­vel­op­ment and de­for­esta­tion have wiped out a lot of giant panda habi­tats. Af­ter the IUCN an­nounce­ment, the ad­min­is­tra­tion called the change in sta­tus “pre­ma­ture”.

Head of the China Con­ser­va­tion and Re­search Cen­ter for the Giant Panda, Zhang Hemin, was cited by Xin­hua as say­ing that “A se­verely frag­mented nat­u­ral habi­tat still threat­ens the lives of pan­das; ge­netic trans­fer be­tween dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions will im­prove, but is still not sat­is­fac­tory.”

Other sci­en­tists were sim­i­larly non­plussed. Ouyang Zhiyun, a re­searcher with the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences, told Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can that the change in sta­tus means it will be even more dif­fi­cult to per­suade de­vel­op­ers to take the con­ser­va­tion of pan­das se­ri­ously. He should know; he was in­volved in a project to con­nect rail­ways in Sichuan Prov­ince and Gansu Prov­ince, which tra­versed panda habi­tats. He had to try to con­vince de­vel­op­ers to build bridges over these ar­eas rather than de­stroy the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment. “We suc­ceeded to a large ex­tent, mainly be­cause pan­das en­joyed a spe­cial en­dan­gered sta­tus,” he told the pub­li­ca­tion.

Loss of habi­tat has par­tic­u­larly grim im­pli­ca­tions for wild pan­das, and the sit­u­a­tion is un­likely to get eas­ier. It’s a view that the IUCN re­port ac­tu­ally en­dorses, largely be­cause of the cli­mate-change ele­phant in the room.

“Al­though the pop­u­la­tion is cur­rently in­creas­ing, cli­mate change is pre­dicted to elim­i­nate >35% of the panda’s bam­boo habi­tat in the next 80 years, and thus the panda pop­u­la­tion is pro­jected to de­cline,” the re­port states. “The threat of de­clin­ing bam­boo avail­abil­ity due to cli­mate change could, in the near fu­ture, re­verse the gains made dur­ing the last two decades. The giant panda will re­main a con­ser­va­tion-de­pen­dent species for the fore­see­able fu­ture. The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment’s plan to ex­pand ex­ist­ing con­ser­va­tion pol­icy for the species should re­ceive strong sup­port to en­sure its im­ple­men­ta­tion.”

There are still a lot of ques­tions over the vi­a­bil­ity of panda breed­ing pro­grams. The first cap­tive-bred panda ever re­leased into the wild, Xiang Xiang, was quickly slain by an­other panda.

On Oc­to­ber 20, two pan­das were re­leased, tak­ing the to­tal num­ber of pan­das re­leased into the wild from cap­tiv­ity to seven, with two con­firmed fatal­i­ties.

Then there are also ques­tions over the ac­cu­racy of the num­bers them­selves; the in­crease in panda num­bers is based on com­par­ing two dif­fer­ent cen­suses, taken many years apart and with sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved method­ol­ogy in the more re­cent sur­vey. Crit­ics point out that the in­creased num­bers could be a func­tion of better track­ing rather than ac­tual pop­u­la­tion in­creases.

All of these fac­tors com­pli­cat­ing the re­cov­ery of giant panda num­bers en­sure that Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties are not go­ing to give up on panda preser­va­tion ef­forts any­time soon; if any­thing, they are go­ing to dou­ble down. The cen­tral gov­ern­ment is re­view­ing plans for a na­tional panda re­serve, and pub­lic in­ter­est in pan­das is as high as it has ever been, as the panda live feeds con­tinue to boast high viewer num­bers. China is not about to aban­don the giant panda, be­cause at present, it would seem that they cer­tainly aren’t go­ing to sur­vive with­out hu­man as­sis­tance.

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