The giant panda was once considered an endangered species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN); but last year, the animal conservation firm downgraded the creature to “vulnerable” on the grounds of population increases.
Image Credit: Skeeze/Pixabay
Although the conservation status change echoed both bad and good signals across the animal conservation community, there’s more involved in animal conservation than just taking head counts.
A new study published in the journal Ecology and Evolution by researchers from both the United States and China points to other factors that are important to consider when determining how threatened with extinction the giant panda is.
Although the number of giant pandas in the wild is steadily climbing, so too are the concerns that their habitats are shrinking and becoming fragmented by increased land development in China.
Habitat fragmentation creates a scenario where two giant panda populations become cut off from one another in the wild by roads, cities, and other developments. In essence, this makes it harder for giant pandas from different populations to get together and mate.
“The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recently changed the status of the giant panda from ‘endangered’ to the less threatened ‘vulnerable,’” said Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “This was based on the increasing numbers, which are a very encouraging sign, of course.”
“But what my colleagues and I wanted to know was how the panda’s habitat has changed over the last four decades, because the extent and connectivity of a species’ habitat is also a major factor in determining its risk of extinction,” Pimm continued.
Although we see a steady increase happening in giant panda numbers today, that could change if land development continues at its current pace. If too many males or too many females end up on one side of the developed area, this could spell out trouble for reproduction.
The researchers turned to satellite imagery to learn more about how the animals' habitat changed with continued land development from 1976 to 2013, and what they found from the investigation was concerning.
“We found complex changes,” said Weihua Xu, one of the study’s lead authors. “Habitat decreased nearly 5 percent from 1976 to 2001 but has increased since. However, the average size of the habitat patches decreased by 23 percent from 1976 to 2001. It has increased only slightly since.”
The findings confirm fears that populations are being cut off from one another and fragmented by land development. Moreover, they emphasize how important it is that we take the proper steps to preserve giant pandas’ natural habitats as soon as possible to promote mating.
It will be difficult to reverse the habitat damage that occurred over the last several decades. Nevertheless, we can still preserve giant pandas and their existing habitats by preventing excessive deforestation and establishing protected nature reserves where giant panda populations can mate in peace.
The study highlights how imperfect our methods of gauging animal conservation can be, and why it's important to keep track of animal environments on a regular basis.