The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) doesn’t recognize the giant panda as an endangered species anymore. Instead, they’re listed as a “vulnerable” species. Nevertheless, animal conservationists still fear the worst as giant panda habitats become more fragmented throughout China.
Image Credit: Binbin Li
Although land development deals a tremendous blow to giant panda populations, it's not the only threat to the species’ existence. A new study published in the journal Biological Conservation highlights yet another problem, and it's happening in China’s Wanglang National Nature Preserve as we speak.
Study lead author Binbin Li from the Environmental Research Center at Duke Kunshan University says that exponential growth in livestock grazing over the last 15 years has contributed to increased habitat degradation.
“Increasing numbers of free-ranging livestock inside the reserve’s forests have caused tremendous impacts on bamboos, which constitute 99 percent of the giant pandas’ diet,” Li elaborates.
“What is worse, overgrazing has reduced the regeneration of these bamboos. Local communities leave their livestock to free range in the forests and only come to feed them salt twice a month. So the livestock feed on the bamboos year-round, especially in winter.”
To reach their conclusion, the researchers analyzed over 20 years of geographic data to understand how bamboo, livestock, and panda distributions changed over time. Unsurprisingly, a correlation existed between increased livestock grazing and decreased in bamboo/panda presence throughout Wanglang National Nature Preserve.
Image Credit: Binbin Li
With local bamboo taking a significant hit from livestock grazing, giant pandas find it harder to live in these regions. When there is less bamboo, giant pandas have to look elsewhere for food sources. The disbandment further fragments their populations, making it harder for them to mate and impacting the species' numbers as a whole.
Staff from the Wanglang National Nature Preserve seem to be able to confirm the findings, reporting fewer wild giant panda sightings today than just a few years ago.
Many questions still remain about why livestock grazing has become so popular in recent years, but the researchers are working with local communities to develop sustainable solutions that work for everyone: farmers and giant pandas alike
“Instead of just a livestock ban, we need to find alternative livelihood practices for the local community, like job opportunities in tourism or forest stewardship, which are preferred by the locals from our interviews.” Li continued.
“Reduce the number of livestock in panda habitats, promote better ways of raising livestock, and find the balance between panda conservation and local development. These are our goals.”
Video Credit: Binbin Li
The study underscores the importance of solving the giant panda problem soon. If we don't, then creatures could make it right back onto the IUCN’s endangered species list in the future, and no one wants to see that happen…
Source: Duke University