Panda Numbers Rise – But Success Not Guaranteed

Posted on September 13th 2021

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Pandas in the past have been poached for their fur, smuggled as cubs from their habitat for overseas buyers, and have suffered habitat loss. As a result their numbers rapidly declined. By the 1980s there were barely 1000 left in the wild. They became the poster animal for those facing extinction.

Fast forward to present day, and pandas are being reported as a conservation success. Chinese officials are now reporting that their numbers in the wild have almost doubled under 30 years of government led efforts, and are no longer endangered.

IUCN downgraded panda listing

The IUCN had already downgraded the panda from endangered to vulnerable in 2016 due to increase in numbers and habitat. However, some Chinese conservationists suggested it was too early to do that.

Since 2016 much more has been done, therefore the IUCN’s move has proved justified even if it was possibly premature. A Giant Panda National Park in Sichuan Province has been created, and the number of pandas bred in captivity has nearly doubled to 633. The captive breeding programme is important to their survival ensuring the species has genetic diversity.

That all said, conservationists are keen for complacency not to set in. Despite the good news, long term survival is not guaranteed. Irrespective of the new national panda park in Sichuan Province deforestation of their habitats has still restricted pandas to less than 1% of their historic range. Other threats also exist.

Natural conflicts

The setting aside of land for panda’s has also benefitted other wildlife sharing the same habitat. Sichuan takins have tripled in number over past 30 years. They feast on the vegetation but that means that the composition of the forest is changing. There are fewer large trees and more shrubs, which is a difference to the habitat within which pandas like to raise their young.

Scientists believe the takin may also be rubbing themselves on the trees and removing the pandas scent markings. If that is true, that would decrease the chances of pandas finding a mate. Further study of how the changing vegetation affects pandas is required.

Another animal that is also a threat to pandas is the northern Chinese boars. The boars are numerous and they also happen to eat on the protein rich bamboo shoots in Spring. The shoots are a rich source of protein for pregnant pandas. It has been noted that panda numbers increase in areas where boars are less prolific.

Apex predators such as snow leopards and wolves have all but disappeared so nothing is hunting the takin and boar. One argument that has been proposed is to try and put these predators back in to the equation, however further study is required in order to totally understand the impact on these animals to the panda numbers.

Positive future for pandas

Poaching is rare these days, and habitat loss is on the decrease. There are dedicated teams in place to assist in stopping the panda numbers falling. Thousands of rangers across the Sichuan Province are active across 166 nature reserves. The rangers collect vital data about the pandas.

Captive breeding programs are another area of success if measured on numbers alone. However, there is an aim to release captive bred pandas in to the wild, but that is controversial, costly and time consuming. There has been limited success so far with this effort as very few captive pandas have been released to the wild, and of those that have been released none have gone on to find a mate and breed in the wild.

The creation of more habitat reserves for wild pandas might be a better use of time and money, but the the captive programme may have merits. There may be better success with it in time.

If you would like to find out about supporting conservation efforts for pandas then please visit our Adopt a Panda page.

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