They are the poster animal for conservation, and often synonymous with rarity. Yet there is good news for the giant panda, it would seem, as it has just been announced that the black and white bears are to be removed from the “endangered” list. So successful have the Chinese been at protecting the species and the bamboo forests in which they live, the population has rebounded to numbers not seen for decades.
It is notoriously difficult to estimate the number of pandas in the wild, as the naturally secretive and rare animals live in remote mountainous regions. There have been various different attempts at calculating the number of creatures roaming the forests, but the official estimate now puts them at 2,060 individuals, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This means that the latest edition of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, released this week, now classes the panda as “vulnerable”, one step down from endangered.
This number is disputed, however, with one genetic study suggesting that the bears are actually faring much better, with as many as between 2,500 and 3,000 giant pandas in the wild. While this may sound like fantastic news, counterintuitively, the Chinese government may not be so pleased. It has spent the last few decades building up what is known by some as “panda diplomacy”, where they use the animals as political capital, sweetening deals made with other countries on the promise of loaning pairs of the bears to host nations. If the giant panda is no longer considered the rare and endangered animal it once was, does this mean that it will similarly lose its political clout?
Either way, the news that the bears have been bouncing back is surely to be welcomed across the board. “Evidence from a series of range-wide national surveys indicate that the previous population decline has been arrested, and the population has started to increase,” the latest IUCN report states. “The improved status confirms that the Chinese government's efforts to conserve this species are effective.” It goes to show that species can be saved from the brink if concerted effort and political will are in place.
Yet the IUCN ended on a sobering note. It says that while the last two decades have shown great gains in panda numbers, all this could be reversed, as the bears are expected to lose 35 percent of their bamboo forests over the next 80 years due to climate change. It means that attention should not only be focused on getting the notoriously celibate creatures to breed, but also on protecting their vulnerable habitat.