Wild pandas are no longer endangered, but do they have enough habitat to survive?

Chinese researchers have calculated what changes need to be made to ensure no wild panda populations die out.

A Nature study has found that, although no longer officially endangered, the giant panda still faces significant threats to its habitat. We talked to biologist Qiang Dai, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to find out why fragmented habitats and civilization encroachment are the biggest dangers to wild panda survival.  

ResearchGate: Could you briefly outline the main findings of your study?

Qiang Dai: We first tried to prove that the giant panda is an area-sensitive species that depends on a protected habitat to survive. We then estimated the minimum habitat area needed to ensure the long-term survival of the giant population using datasets put together by conservationists in the Fourth National Giant Panda Survey. We found that the habitat of the giant panda is still seriously fragmented, especially in the south of its distribution. In these southern regions, the wild populations are far from safe. We also concluded that just translocating pandas is not sufficient to ensure the survival of local populations, unless we work to reduce the break-up their habitats.

RG: What caused you to look into how much space is required to ensure panda survival?

Dai: I was inspired to research this as friends of mine are working to protect giant pandas. They wanted to know whether areas of their habitat were too small, and needed to be expanded, and which areas could sustain the pandas. Understanding this is very helpful for them when making decisions around conservation.

RG:  The giant panda was recently taken off the endangered list, and labelled as vulnerable. Do the findings of your study reflect this change in status?

Dai: It’s good news that the giant panda is no longer “endangered”. This is something that my friends who are working to conserve the panda are very proud of. The habitat of the giant panda has been expanding over the past 20 years, which is why the status is gradually improving. However, I don’t think the giant panda is safe now. The threats to their habitat are still only partially controlled, not annihilated, plus there is the additional impact that climate change could have on their natural habitat. The progress we have made could disappear quickly if we do not continue working to improve the situation.

RG: What are the main threats to the survival of the giant panda today?

Dai: The giant panda itself is tough – it has outlived many other animals in its history. Additionally, the genetic diversity of the giant panda is still high. The stochastic processes in demography shouldn’t be a very big problem for a population with over 1,800 individuals. Also, hunting is not an issue as the panda is highly regarded in Chinese culture. So, most threats that other large wildlife face do not affect the giant panda. Habitat degradation and fragmentation, however, is a real, complicated problem. There are many people living in or beside the habitat of the giant panda, and inevitably there is conflict between their needs and the needs of the wildlife. Balancing this conflict is far more difficult than publishing a paper, and requires dedicated people to work on it.

 What are the main ways that humans can help ensure the survival of the giant panda?

Dai: For now, we need to build corridors to connect these small habitat patches, and we need to expand the habitat if it is too small. In the long run, it’s important for us to balance the conflict between humans and wildlife.

RG: What are the next steps in this research?

Dai: I hope that more research will be done that supports our findings and revises the estimation of minimum habitat area.

Image courtesy of George Lu.