NEW YORK – One year after giant pandas graduated from endangered to "vulnerable," a welcome designation after 28 years, Chinese scientists have sobering news: The animal's natural habitat in China is in serious danger.
In a study published by the Nature Ecology & Evolution on Monday (Sept 25), researchers report that suitable panda habitats have significantly and steadily declined since 1990, the year the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) first classified the animals as endangered. That could make any gain in China's wild panda population a short-lived conservation victory.
Logging, human encroachment, road construction and agriculture have conspired to divide panda habitats into tiny sections, a process known as fragmentation, the study said.
Mr Ouyang Zhiyun, a professor of environmental science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his colleagues studied 40 years of satellite data to reach their conclusions, and are urging the Chinese government to take specific steps to restore panda-friendly environments.
Giant pandas are a national icon of China, the only place in the world where they live outside of captivity. Years of Chinese government efforts to reverse their dwindling numbers, such as the restoration of bamboo forests and establishment of national habitat reserves, helped bring the animals back from the brink. They were declared no longer endangered last September after population estimates reached 1,864 not counting cubs. That's up from a low of about 1,200 in the 1980s.
But even with that good news came a warning: Climate change and other factors could devastate the pandas' habitat in the longer term, rendering any population surge a temporary victory, the IUCN said. Exacerbating the problem is the fragmentation of China's panda population, confined now to just six mountain ranges and about 30 isolated groups, 18 of which contain no more than 10 individuals.
Mr Ouyang and colleagues note that Chinese restoration efforts have had a positive effect on panda habitats in recent years, and planned changes mean that "various pressures on pandas and their habitat will likely decrease" in the short-term, the study said. But infrastructure development, tourism and other encroachments could undermine these improvements, they added.
The researchers recommend specific steps China can take prevent the pandas from becoming endangered again. China must "improve connectivity for isolated small panda populations by building habitat corridors and reducing habitat fragmentation," Mr Ouyang said. The paper also called for the establishment of "ecological red lines" that physically separate panda habitats from human development, the expansion of panda preserves and the restriction of tourism in national parks containing pandas. THE NEW YORK TIMES