Saving the giant panda from extinction may be an iconic conservation success story, but it's not necessarily been good news for the snow leopards, leopards, wolves, and Asian wild dogs that share its habitat.
Off the back of the creation of the first giant panda reserves in China in the 1960s, the bamboo-munching bears were eventually downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2016 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), serving a clear sign that decades of conservation efforts had paid off.
However, scientists have now discovered that a number of large carnivores have disappeared from the protected areas in China that were created for the conservation of the giant panda. While the humble panda is not directly to blame for their demise, the new research highlights how conservation strategies should focus on the broader picture of an ecosystem, rather than a single charismatic species.
“These findings warn against the heavy reliance on a single-species conservation policy for biodiversity conservation in the region,” write the study authors.
Reported in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution this week, researchers led by Peking University used survey data and camera-traps in 73 protected areas in China, including 66 giant panda nature reserves, to study the prevalence of four large mammals: leopards (Panthera pardus), snow leopards (P. uncia), wolves (Canis lupus), and dholes, aka Asian wild dogs (Cuon alpinus).
Their findings show a wide distribution range retreat of the species studied: Leopards have disappeared from 81 percent of reserves, snow leopards from 38 percent, wolves from 77 percent, and dholes from 95 percent.
Pandas have been the subject of a high-profile conservation campaign for decades. Their numbers are still slowly rising today (although the bear is not out of the woods yet, so to speak). Much of this effort has been focused on restoring the mountainous forests of southwest China where they live, thereby providing the species with habitat and bamboo they need to thrive.
"It's all about restoring the habitats," Craig Hilton-Taylor, Head of the IUCN Red List, told BBC News in 2016. "You need to get the bamboo back and slowly the numbers will start to creep back."
But, as the new study shows, this approach isn't necessarily favorable for all the inhabitants of the wider ecosystem. The reason for the other species’ decline is complex, but logging, disease from domestic animals, and poaching of both the carnivores and their prey are all thought to have contributed to these losses. Another key challenge is that pandas are not particularly into travel, with home ranges around 13 square kilometers (5 square miles), while the leopards, wolves, and dholes can range over 100 square kilometers (39 square miles). Although the quest to save the panda has touched on some of these problems, it appears it has also ignored many of the subtler concerns for the country's large carnivores.
"Different habitat requirements and threats have prevented the giant panda from being an effective umbrella species for the protection of large carnivores, suggesting that specific planning is needed to conserve the large carnivore species," the new study concludes.