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7 September 2016

From endangered to vulnerable: have we really saved giant pandas from extinction?

Years of work by conservationists in southern and eastern China have led to giant pandas being protected from dying out in the near future.

By Hasan Chowdhury

The efforts of wildlife conservationists in China have finally been rewarded as the giant panda is no longer listed as an endangered species.

Decades of work geared towards protecting the bears have culminated in the pandas now being classified as vulnerable, protected from extinction for the near future. The announcement on the collective progress made in panda conservation was made in a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), who updated their Red List recently – an inventory noting the conservation status of more than 80,000 species.

Data suggests that there are now around 2060 giant pandas in the wild, 1864 of which are adults. In the report, it was noted that “evidence from a series of range-wide national surveys indicates that the previous population decline has been arrested, and the population has started to increase.”

The animal which fronts the World Wide Fund for Nature’s logo and stands as China’s unofficial mascot has had its population stabilised by conservationists targeting bamboo. By some estimates, bamboo can constitute up to 99 per cent of a panda’s diet, with 12-38kg of the plant being consumed daily, making it a fundamental component in the survival of pandas.

The population growth in China meant bamboo forests were increasingly difficult to come by, so repopulating the bamboo forests in the southern and eastern regions of China has spearheaded the strategies of conservationists.

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However, the report warned that the changed status may not last and giant pandas could quickly find themselves facing extinction again unless climate change is confronted. The natural habitats of panda’s risk being destroyed, and so the report notes that “to protect this iconic species, it is critical that the effective forest protection measures are continued and that emerging threats are addressed.”

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A further warning from the IUCN highlighted that despite good news about pandas, other animals have stepped closer to extinction, with the eastern gorilla marked out in the report as an animal at critical stage, primarily because of an increase in illegal hunting. The decline of other species has often led to calls for investment in panda conservation to be cut, as some in the field see pandas as merely “celebrity animals”, detracting attention from species at purportedly greater risks. To counter this and diversify the ways in which pandas are conserved, a number of zoos are looking into breeding in captivity.

Judging by global reaction to the reduced extinction risk to pandas, it seems clear that panda conservation work will continue to be encouraged.