A study in 2014 by the Chinese Department of Forestry estimated the current population of the wild Giant Pandas at approximately 1,864. As of 2020 there are approximately 600 giant pandas in captivity. Giant pandas are on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Animals. The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects giant pandas, as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). While hunting and poaching have been reduced due to strict laws by the Chinese government, accidental capture of giant pandas in traps set for other animals still possess a serious problem.
The future of the giant panda is interwoven with the Chinese people. New advances in environmentally responsible farming, high yield crops to reduce logging, and population control efforts will all help the giant pandas. The Chinese Government also has several projects for reforesting hillsides, protecting grasslands and nature reserves for the giant pandas. There are also plans to pay farmers to turn cropland back to forests and to establish commercial tree farms to replace logging. Bamboo planting, in Sichuan Province, for the captive and wild pandas is an ongoing project.
Status Change – Some people have questioned the change in status of the giant pandas, by the IUCN, from Endangered to Vulnerable. Let us take this opportunity to say, on one hand, this is cause for celebration. It shows that with your support, progress is being made in panda conservation. The Chinese have been working since the 1960’s to save their national treasure and this affirms the efforts are paying off. The captive population is currently stable, as the number in captivity well exceeds the number set forth in the Species Survival Plan.
That said…..there are still great concerns and we have definitely NOT reached even modest goals in panda conservation. The IUCN states that the vulnerable status is still at high risk of extinction in the wild.
What does it mean for Panda Conservation? Our greatest fear is the public and our supporters will think the pandas are safe at the present time and become complacent and that is not the case. If the government or the public gets lax in conservation efforts, the pandas could rapidly slide backwards. There may be many unintended consequences of this change including more human activity and trekking in their habitat. A recent International Conference on Panda Conservation published conclusions which state the giant panda is still endangered.
Premature – Professor Zhang Hemin, head of China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Pandas, said he felt it was too early to down grade their status. He expressed concerns about the severely fragmented natural habitat which still threatens the lives of pandas. Concerns regarding the genetic status of the different populations that while improved, but is still not satisfactory. Climate change is widely expected to have an adverse effect on the bamboo forests which provide both their food and their home. Zhang feels there is still a lot to be done in both protection and management terms.
According to Zhang, “The wild giant panda population is broken up into 33 isolated groups, some with fewer than 10 individuals, severely limiting the gene pool. Of the 18 sub-populations consisting of fewer than 10 pandas, all face a high risk of collapse”. This is a major reason Pandas International supports the reintroduction programs.
“With the conservation status downgrade, protection work might slacken off and both the panda population and their habitat are more likely to suffer irreversible loss,” Zhang said. “Present protection achievements will be lost and some small sub-populations may die out” according to Zhang. So we must look at the big picture of the entire species, if one of these populations dies off it would be very harmful.
Fragmentation is one of the largest problems for the wild Giant Pandas, and although there has been talk of corridors for years, none have been constructed at this time.
Additionally, the reintroduction program is in its infancy and has a long way to go before it can be declared a success. Plus extensive research needs to be done on contagious diseases in order to protect both the captive and wild giant panda populations.