Giant Panda Not Doomed to Extinction

CARDIFF, Wales, August 24, 2007 (ENS) - Hope that the giant panda will not slide into extinction has been revived by a new study issued today by scientists from Cardiff University. The giant panda is not at an "evolutionary dead end" and could have a long term viable future, the new study finds.

One of the world's great charismatic species, giant pandas attract intense interest from the public in zoos and in the wild. An estimated 1,600 pandas remain in the wild.

But previous studies have found that the giant panda's isolation, unusual dietary requirements and slow reproductive rates have led to a lack of genetic diversity that will inevitably lead the species to extinction.

Wild pandas in Sichuan province, China (Photo courtesy Sichuan China International Travel Service)
Now a study by Professor Michael Bruford and Dr. Benoit Goossens from the University of Cardiff School of Biosciences, in collaboration with Professor Fuwen Wei and colleagues from the Institute of Zoology along with the China West Normal University in Sichuan province, has found that the decline of the species can be linked directly to human activities rather than a genetic inability to adapt and evolve.

"Our research challenges the hypothesis that giant pandas are at an evolutionary dead end," said Professor Bruford. "It is however clear that the species has suffered demographically at the hands of human activities such as deforestation and poaching."

The study gives a new genetic perspective on the giant panda, as well as tracing its demographic history. The research also shows that in areas where habit conservation projects are in place, the giant panda is flourishing and population numbers are increasing.

Giant pandas live in southwestern China and have the most restricted distribution of all bears. Their habitat is limited to bamboo thickets in mountainous regions between altitudes of 1,200 and 3,500 meters. Ninety-nine percent of a panda's diet is made up of 30 species of bamboo.

Once hunted for their fur, meat and body parts, giant pandas are classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List and are listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, on Appendix I, which means that all international trade in the animals and their parts is prohibited.

"Our research suggests we have to revise our thinking about the evolutionary prospects for the giant panda," said Professor Bruford. "The species has a viable future and possesses the genetic capacity to adapt to new circumstances."

Wild panda eating bamboo (Photo courtesy WWF)
Conservation efforts should be directed towards habitat restoration and protection, Bruford advises, saying, "In their natural environment, the giant panda is a species that can have a bright future."

At least one panda conservation project is succeeding on the basis of community conservation efforts, says the Chinese branch of the global conservation group WWF, whose logo and mascot is the giant panda.

Within the forests of the Upper Yangtze, WWF China has identified the Minshan mountain range in Sichuan and Gansu provinces as an outstanding landscape for unique and endangered wildlife, with important populations of giant panda, clouded leopard, golden monkey and the world's richest variety of pheasants.

The Minshan covers parts of sixteen counties and 19 nature reserves and is populated by close to one million Han, Tibetan, Qiang, and Baima people.

In 1998, massive flooding devastated a large area along the Yangtze River downstream from Sichuan. In response, the Chinese government declared a ban on logging in order to protect the river's upper watershed forests.

The logging ban eliminated what had been the major threat to pandas and their habitat - commercial logging. At the same time, it brought new challenges. With no more revenue from taxes on logging, local government has less money to support conservation.

Now, WWF China, together with a wide range of stakeholders, is implementing an approach to conservation that balances the ecological, social, and economic needs of the landscape.

This project is demonstrating community-based conservation of the giant panda and its habitat and seeks to expand these experiences to other areas in the Minshan landscape.

The giant panda is considered a national treasure in China, and it comes under the highest category of legal protection. By 2012, WWF China projects, giant panda populations and their habitats will have increased by at least 10 percent in the Minshan area.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.