Long the face of the conservation movement, giant pandas were upgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species In September 2016. The listing change followed a 17% increase in the population in China from 2004 to 2014. There are an estimated 1,864 pandas left in the wild with the numbers increasing, based on the most recent survey in 2014.
The improved status shows that the government’s efforts to help conserve the panda have been somewhat effective. But there are still obstacles to overcome, including habitat loss and the impact of the climate crisis on bamboo, the panda’s main food source.
Although the giant panda has experienced a recent increase in some habitat in China, habitat loss continues to be the primary threat facing the species, according to the IUCN. Giant pandas lived in China’s bamboo forests for several million years, but their numbers were decimated as humans cleared acres of habitat for homes and agriculture, roads and mining.
In 1988, the Chinese government banned logging in the panda’s habitat. But new roads and railways are still being built in the area. That not only clears trees, but also fragments the forests, isolating small groups of panda populations.
The panda population has as many as 33 subpopulations, and more than half of those contain fewer than 10 individuals, reports the IUNC. These small groups are often cut off from habitat, food sources, and from other pandas. Because some of these subpopulations are so small, conservation geneticists are concerned about inbreeding in these groups. It’s often linked with decreased fertility and can impact survival rates.
Bamboo makes up about 90% of a panda’s diet, according to the WWF. Because bamboo is low in nutrients, pandas eat a lot of it, spending about 12 hours a day munching on the thick stalks and leaves.But bamboo may be quite vulnerable to the climate crisis. Depending on the species, some bamboo only reproduces every 15 to 100 years. Others only thrive at certain temperatures or elevations. Even during the COVID pandemic the Calgary Zoo in Canada had to return 2 pandas to China due to lack of bamboo supply.
All in all: After 30 years of slow but steady progress, the IUCN has now changed the panda’s status on the Red List of Threatened Species. The decision is a recognition of the hard work of the Chinese government, local communities, nature reserve staff and conversation charities over many years. But the panda’s long term future is not yet secure.