On September 5, 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) downgraded giant panda from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the group’s Red List of Threatened Species. Founded in 1964, the red list is widely recognized as the most comprehensive inventory of plant and animal species and the world’s main authority on the conservation status of species.
The red list covers nine categories, in which Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN) and Vulnerable (VU) highlight plants and animals that face a higher risk of global extinction.
The new designation is based on a nationwide census in China from 2011 to 2014, which found 1,864 giant pandas in the wild, not including cubs under the age of 18 months, a 17-percent rise over last decade. Efforts by the Chinese government have reversed the slide of the giant panda population and contributed to the rebound of the species. The improved situation confirms that the Chinese government’s reforestation efforts, especially for bamboo forests and forest protection, are working, the IUCN said.
“When push comes to shove, the Chinese have done a really good job with pandas,” says John Robinson, primatologist and chief conservation officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “So few species actually get down-listed, so it really is a reflection of the success of conservation.”
China banned trading panda pelts in 1981, and the enactment of the 1988 Wildlife Protection Law banned poaching and conferred the highest protected status to the animal. The creation of a panda reserve system increased the number of available habitats. Today, 67 panda reserves including 26 national-level ones in China protect about 67 percent of the population, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
However, Marc Brody, a senior adviser for conservation and sustainable development at China’s Wolong Nature Reserve, notes, “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 continues. “In fact, ‘suitable’ or high-quality panda habitats are decreasing due to ongoing fragmentation from highway construction, active tourism development in Sichuan Province, and other human economic activities.”
“Despite the improved status, the giant panda still faces great challenges in the wild,” agrees Lo Sze-ping, director general of WWF in China. “Many of their habitats are under increasing threat of human activities such as infrastructure construction— and remember: There are still only 1,864 left in the wild.”
China’s State Forestry Administration is also comparatively pessimistic about the animal’s progress. On its website, the administration disputed the conservation group’s decision, dubbing it a theoretical conclusion based on statistics and indicators. Considering the current situations on the protection of the animal, the giant panda is still in danger and it is too early to downgrade its designation.
Pandas’ natural habitats have been splintered by natural and human causes. Wild giant pandas live in 33 isolated groups, among which 22 with less than 30 pandas face risk of disappearing and 18 with less than 10 pandas face high risk of disappearing. Meanwhile, the fragmented habitats hinder the gene communications and population diversity, causing low vitality of the species.
IUCN’s report also says that in the next 80 years, climate change could destroy more than one-third of the world’s bamboo forests. Given that pandas survive on a bamboo-only diet, that would drastically hurt conservation efforts.
“Although IUCN adjusted the giant panda’s status to vulnerable, in terms of domestic and international regulations, protection efforts will not decrease,” says the head of a wild animal protection station under the Forestry Administration Department of Sichuan Province.
A flagship species, the giant panda can attract heavy participation from the general public to aid its ecological protection. Also, the biological diversity of giant pandas’ reserves is unparalleled in the temperate world and rivals tropical ecosystems, making the giant panda an excellent example of an umbrella species conferring protection on many other complementary species.
“If we downgrade their conservation status, or neglect or relax our conservation work, the population and habitats of giant pandas would suffer irreversible loss, and our achievements would quickly be lost,” the forestry administration stresses. “Therefore, we’re not being alarmist by continuing to emphasize the species’ endangered status.”
The IUCN also wrote in its report on the animal, “Whereas the decision to upgrade the giant panda to vulnerable is a positive sign confirming that the Chinese government’s efforts to conserve this species have been effective. It is critically important that these protective measures are continued, and that emerging threats are addressed.”