Giant pandas are growing in numbers, but their habitat is ‘shrinking and becoming more fragmented’

  • The giant panda was first listed as an endangered species in 1988.
  • Last year, the giant panda was downgraded from endangered to vulnerable 
  • But the forests where the panda reside are in now worse shape than in 1988
  • Average size of habitat patches decreased by 23 per cent from 1976 to 2001

Phoebe Weston For Mailonline

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It looked like the giant panda was bouncing back from being ‘endangered’ 

But despite growing numbers, the bear’s natural habitat is ‘shrinking and becoming more fragmented’ due to roads and other infrastructure, warns new research.

The study shows that the creature’s habitat still covers less area and is more fragmented than when it was first listed as an endangered species in 1988.

Scientists have discovered the average size of habitat patches for giant pandas has decreased by 23 per cent from 1976 to 2001. 

Habitat loss is believed to be one of the most serious threats to future survival of the animal.

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While numbers of the iconic giant panda have increased recently, the study shows that the species' habitat still covers less area and is more fragmented than when it was first listed as an endangered species in 1988

While numbers of the iconic giant panda have increased recently, the study shows that the species’ habitat still covers less area and is more fragmented than when it was first listed as an endangered species in 1988

PANDA HABITATS

While numbers of the iconic giant panda have increased recently, the study shows that the species’ habitat still covers less area and is more fragmented than when it was first listed as an endangered species in 1988.

The research team used satellite imagery to examine changes across the panda’s entire geographic range from 1976 to 2013.

Banning commercial logging in natural forests, establishing nature reserves and helping residents in the reserve change behaviours that damaged habitat has been beneficial, researchers said. 

But conservation is a dynamic process with humans and nature in a constant push and pull to survive and thrive, so new solutions always are in demand, they said.  

Animal groups hailed the recovery of the bamboo-munching, black-and-white bear that has long been a symbol of China and the global conservation movement. 

‘The International Union for Conservation of Nature has recently changed the status of the giant panda from ‘endangered’ to the less threatened ‘vulnerable”, according to Professor Stuart Pimm, of 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.’

The research team used satellite imagery to examine changes across the panda’s entire geographic range from 1976 to 2013.

Study co-leader Weihua Xu, of the Research Centre for Eco-Environmental Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: ‘We found complex changes.

‘Habitat decreased nearly five per cent from 1976 to 2001, but has increased since.

‘However, the average size of the habitat patches decreased by 23 per cent from 1976 to 2001. It has increased only slightly since.’

Study co-author Jianguo Liu, of Michigan State University who began studying the human and natural forces driving habitat loss in the panda’s habitat in 1996, noted that some of the changes that have occurred in the region are encouraging.

Professor Liu said: ‘Banning commercial logging in natural forests, establishing nature reserves and helping residents in the reserve change behaviours that damaged habitat has been beneficial.

Other changes, though highly beneficial to the region's human population, present challenges from a conservation standpoint, according to the researchers (stock image)

Other changes, though highly beneficial to the region’s human population, present challenges from a conservation standpoint, according to the researchers (stock image)

‘But conservation is a dynamic process with humans and nature in a constant push and pull to survive and thrive, so new solutions always are in demand.’

Other changes, though highly beneficial to the region’s human population, present challenges from a conservation standpoint, according to the researchers. 

Professor Pimm said: ‘The most obvious changes in this region since Professor Liu and his colleague Professor Zhiyun Ouyang first visited it together in 2001 have been the increase and improvement in roads and other infrastructure.

‘These have been the major factor in fragmenting the habitat. There was nearly three times the density of roads in 2013 than in 1976.’

Experts suggest one of the most important solutions will be establishing protected corridors through which pandas can move to prevent their isolation into small and unsustainable populations. 

With average global temperatures climbing, scientists expect the animal’s habitat and main source or food – bamboo forests – to shrink in the coming decades in response to the shifting climate. 

 

 


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