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Giant Pandas Are No Longer ‘Endangered’, But They're Far from Safe

Giant pandas have been upgraded to "vulnerable," but with climate change looming, that's no cause for celebration.

by Sarah Emerson
Sep 6 2016, 3:50pm

Image: Dave Lau/Flickr

Giant pandas have been the face of conservation since the 1960s when China issued a plea to the global community: "Save our endangered species." Over the next three decades, half of all wild pandas would succumb to poaching and habitat destruction. Yet, in spite of their imperilment, these black-and-white bears became one of the most famous animals in the world. To date, arguably no other species has received more attention or aid.

Now, almost 40 years later, the panda is no longer endangered. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Ailuropoda melanoleuca has been upgraded to a species that is "vulnerable" to extinction; a threat level below its seemingly perennial endangered status. And while this is surely some cause for celebration—finally, humanity's most valiant effort to save a species has paid off—what does it actually mean for the future of wild pandas?

The news came amid the world's largest conservation event, a 10-day-long meeting called the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Here, the IUCN proclaimed that panda numbers are up by 17 percent since 2004. Over a decade ago, a nationwide survey counted 1,596 wild pandas living in China's bamboo forests. In 2014, an estimated 1,864 individuals were identified by wildlife researchers. The organization commended the Chinese government for its serious efforts to protect its most iconic species.

Read more: If We Can't Save Pandas, We Can't Save Anything

"The recovery of the panda shows that when science, political will and engagement of local communities come together, we can save wildlife and also improve biodiversity," said Marco Lambertini, director general at the World Wildlife Fund, in a statement on the matter.

Almost half a century has passed since China opened its first panda reserves in Sichuan province. During the 1960s, large swaths of land were protected so that pandas could rebound from near-extinction, and so that scientists could study them. Up until then, logging and poaching were the bear's primary foes. Before China disallowed the hunting of pandas in 1946, hunters would comb the countryside for a chance to shoot or capture one. In 1929, Teddy Roosevelt's two sons became the first Westerners to ever kill a panda.

Giant pandas' current extant range (orange) is locked in a fragmented series of ranges in central China. Shifts in the makeup of their habitat caused by climate change threatens to leave pandas stranded on shrinking islands of bamboo forest. Image: IUCN

Today, pandas are rarely poached because of strict criminal punishment that, in some cases, could result in the death penalty. Instead, as the IUCN pointed out, climate change, a loss of biodiversity, and habitat fragmentation are the species' most imminent threats. The organization predicts that climate change will likely destroy more than 35 percent of China's bamboo forests in the next 80 years. If that happens, wild panda populations will assuredly decline, elevating the animal's conservation status once again.

"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," Marc Brody, a senior adviser for conservation and sustainable development at China's Wolong Nature Reserve, told National Geographic.

Predictably, some conservationists are worried the downgrade will soften the urgency of defending the species and its habitat. If pandas are to be saved, both the animals and their environment will require legislative support. While IUCN rulings have no direct legal implications, they can put pressure on policymaking aimed at protecting at-risk species. Still, despite recently passing some of its most stringent environmental laws, China maintains a poor record of actually enforcing them.

At the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries reserve, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, illegal logging has clear-cut more than 3,200 acres of panda habitat. In 2015, a two year investigation by Greenpeace revealed that regulatory loopholes allowed prohibited logging to occur under the guidance of China's forestry department.

"Everyone should celebrate this achievement but pandas remain scattered and vulnerable, and much of their habitat is threatened by poorly-planned infrastructure projects."

And even where habitat remains pristine, the looming threat of climate change could soon eliminate the panda's only food source. Researchers have predicted that by the end of the century, we'll see mass bamboo die-offs in the Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi province, where 17 percent of wild panda populations exist. A recent study, published in the International Journal of Ecology, employed climate models to predict that more than 6,000 square miles of bamboo forests will become uninhabitable to pandas by 2080.

There's also speculation as to whether captive breeding centers can ever achieve their goal: to one day repopulate pandas in the wild. For China, panda exchange programs are both a conservation strategy and an economic boon. Foreign zoos pay millions of dollars to borrow breeding pairs, with the stipulation that any cubs produced be returned to China after two years. However, convincing the sexually fickle animals to mate has proven to be a thorn in the side of captive breeding efforts. Many zoos can go years without a blip on the sonogram.

As governments and conservation centers continue to sink funding into panda programs, many have contended that other animals, closer to extinction, are worthier of our time and money. Often, these ignored species are reptiles, birds, and small mammals. The argument that charismatic megafauna unfairly attract more attention is aimed squarely and these lovable bears. Even scientists can be swayed by the persuasion of the cute and cuddly animal.

Pandas in the Cheng Du panda reserve. Image: DaiLuo/Flickr

So far, only three captive-born pandas, named Hua Jiao, Tao Tao and Zhang Xiang, have been successfully returned to their native habitat.

"Everyone should celebrate this achievement but pandas remain scattered and vulnerable, and much of their habitat is threatened by poorly-planned infrastructure projects—and remember: there are still only 1,864 left in the wild," said Lo Sze Ping, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund China, in a statement.

Yet, if this week's announcement proves anything, it's that species can be returned from the brink of annihilation, so long as the will (and the wealth) is there. As Motherboard's Kaleigh Rogers wrote earlier this year, if we can't save pandas, then we can't save anything. Just 40 years ago, wild panda numbers nearly dipped into the triple digits. Now, scientists are deploying one of the most extensive conservation attempts history has ever known.

All over the world, 23,928 plants and animals are on the edge of disappearing forever. While things are looking up for pandas, the IUCN also revealed that four out of six great ape species are now critically endangered. Thirty-eight of Hawaii's 415 endemic plant species, it added, have become extinct. Could they have been saved, too? We'll never know.

Whatever is next for pandas will be determined by a more global fight—the very same fight that will decide our own future.

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