Status Downgrade, Same Protection

Scientists find traces of wild giant pandas during a field survey at the Wanglang nature reserve in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province. by Wang Fang

On July 7, 2021, an official from China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment announced that the population of wild giant pandas in China had exceeded 1,800 and that its status was downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable.”

The news inspired the same question from many people: Will the “national treasure” lose protection?

In fact, the downgrade only affects the official status of the giant panda but not the many efforts to protect it.

As early as 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had already changed the status of the giant panda from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in accordance with the giant panda expert group’s assessment of global endangered species.

But at that time, an official with China’s State Forestry Administration deemed the wild giant panda still endangered and said it was too early to change its status.

Actually, a series of exciting field data drove the official announcement. From 1985 to 2014, the population of giant pandas increased steadily. Its core habitats have all been covered by 67 nature reserves with thousands of conservation staffers carrying out monitoring and anti-poaching work all year round, which has given the once endangered species great hope for long-term survival. The change in status simply means the efforts have been working.

A panda mom and her baby enjoy time together. The “umbrella effect” of giant panda protection can shelter not only other wild animal species in the animal’s habitats, but also the whole regional ecological systems. by Chen Jian/China Pictorial

The giant panda remains a first-class key protected wild animal in China, and the country’s protection of the animal will not be weakened. Furthermore, protection of the giant panda has become a more meaningful piece of the country’s overall ecological conservation efforts.

The downgrade also reflects a big improvement in China’s ecological environment and a major achievement for giant panda protection efforts from many parties.

Since the 1990s, China has successively implemented large-scale natural forest protection projects, returning vast swaths of farmland to forests and grasslands, greatly improving the living environment for wild animals.

Since the establishment of the first national nature reserve for giant panda protection in Wolong, Sichuan Province, in 1963, a total of 67 nature reserves with the giant panda as the core beneficiary have formed a protection network stretching across Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces, covering more than 70 percent of the wild giant panda population.  

Lately, construction work on giant panda national parks integrating the resources of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces has been promoted vigorously to provide greater guarantees for the long-term safety of giant pandas.                                                                                                                                

Although the core habitat of giant pandas now enjoys robust protection, considerable numbers have been isolated from the other groups in shattered habitats hidden in the mountains due to human activities.

If individual giant pandas in isolated groups cannot engage in effective gene exchange, a series of problems including population decline due to inbreeding and even disappearance of small marginal populations can occur.

It is worth noting that China’s tourism has developed fast in recent years, driving many tourist zones to expand right up to the edge of wild giant pandas’ range of activities. Livestock grazing near wild giant panda reserves also causes significant shrinkage of their habitats.

And global climate change is changing the distribution of the bushes and bamboo forests, fueling the emergence of many problems such as a decline of suitable living areas for wild giant pandas.

Therefore, nature protection efforts should not be weakened, and instead continuous protection investment should be made to effectively confront the new challenges. Protection of the giant panda will likely provide valuable experience for nature protection work in other regions.

It remains extremely important that other species that share habitats with the giant panda also thrive to maintain complete and healthy development of the regional ecological system.

Research has shown that the populations of many other wild animals including the takin, small deer, and tufted deer have all grown thanks to efforts targeting the giant panda.

Wang Fang is a research fellow at the School of Life Sciences of Fudan University in Shanghai.

However, some other protected wildlife such as the “endangered” forest musk deer and the “vulnerable” Asian black bear still face grave threats from habitat and population decline in some regions.

When facing environmental changes and human disturbance, many animals such as giant pandas, takins, tufted deer, and Chinese gorals turn to completely different reaction mechanisms, making targeted protection efforts needed for each species.  

In addition to protecting other wild animals, improving the livelihoods of residents near giant panda reverses has become an important ancillary piece of protection work.

Finding ways to further expand the “umbrella effect” of giant panda protection efforts to benefit other species and even the entire mountain ecosystems has become a key focus of the next stage of protection work.

Global efforts in biodiversity protection are only becoming more and more important. The status downgrade won’t weaken protection of the giant panda. Instead, more efforts will be made to increase protection of wild animals, solve contradictions between protection and development, and explore new methods for protection of nature in the context of climate change and other major environmental changes.

The giant panda’s protection network must function like a massive umbrella, not only sheltering untold wildlife in the reserves, but also creating relevant Chinese experience and effective approaches to protection of global biodiversity.

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