The use of a charismatic umbrella species as surrogate for sympatric species is often advocated as an efficient approach. However, comprehensive evaluations from a spatio-temporal perspective are few, leaving the long-term effectiveness of such practices remain uncertain. We modeled the habitat change for giant panda and eight sympatric mammalian species using observations from extensive camera trap surveys and remotely-sensed environmental predictors during two time periods, early 2000s and early 2010s. We found that the degree and spatial pattern of the habitat suitability change varied among species. The overall habitat suitability improved between the early 2000s and early 2010s for seven target species including giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca, suggesting positive effects of several recent conservation projects in restoring natural landscapes for certain species groups. However, the current nature reserve system designed for giant pandas did not adequately cover critical landscapes for several species, including the two species who experienced net habitat loss, Endangered forest musk deer Moschus berezovskii and Vulnerble Asiatic black bear Ursus thibetanus. To conserve multiple species simultaneously in this region, we recommend establishing nature reserves for other threatened species who share dissimilar habitat needs with giant panda, and adding a widely distributed omnivores, Asiatic black bear, as a surrogate species in central and southwest China. These findings reveal the risk of using umbrella species as a conservation shortcut in protecting animal communities in China, and have substantial implications for other regions where the majority of the conservation funds are directed toward a single charismatic species.