Future of national treasures at risk
Despite a huge investment in time and effort to save the panda, the future of one of the world's favourite animals could be at serious risk unless steps are taken to protect its natural habitat.
In recent years, habitats for China's national treasure have dwindled as a result of human encroachment and exploitation, pushing many species to the edge of extinction.
Dr Sarah Bexell, an American scholar working at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, urges greater emphasis on saving pandas in the wild.
She said the mainland government has made 'tremendous strides' in protecting the natural habitat of the panda, setting up reserves and partnering with domestic and international NGOs to reconnect fragmented habitats and replant bamboo and other key vegetation. But Bexell admitted that it's very difficult for local governments to protect habitats because of limited resources and the many people who rely on products in the nature reserves for their survival.
'The people on the edge of reserves collect bamboo shoots, probably one of the most severe impacts, as well as mushrooms, medicinal plants, firewood and more to feed their families,' she said. 'They are not the bad guys.'
She also said that the growing intrusion of humans has had a harsh influence on wildlife.
'It's scary for them and disrupts their lives, and so many species will leave if there is too much disturbance. Some species are okay with human disturbance and some can even thrive, but there are some species, such as pandas, that really need to be left alone.'
She also warned that pandas are not the only species at risk. 'China barely has any wildlife left - pandas are just the most notable,' she said.
'You go to nature reserves and they are virtually silent - it is terrifying and so completely immoral and wrong. The same phenomenon is happening in many parts of the world. In the conservation community we call it the 'empty forest syndrome'.'
Bexell said we might still have time to reverse the situation, 'but we really have to make changes'.
She said: 'The first thing we have to do is protect their habitat. If we can't do that, reintroduction would be cruel and inhumane.' She called on people around the world to reduce their consumption.
'It's easier to breed cute animals in captivity and pacify the world than to be responsible about our reproduction and consumption - much easier.
'The message being given out to the public is that there are time and resources to save them all, so don't worry. Scientists will clean up all the messes we have made.
'You don't have to change your dangerous behaviour.'
However, she warned: 'We can't tell the future, but it is not looking good. I see that we, as a species, are at a tipping point. Our life support system is faltering and only we can preserve it.
'But that will take compassion, integrity, willingness, sharing, foresight, everything that I see disappearing, especially in much of the US, from our mindsets and hearts.'
She added: 'I think this is the story of the century and our lives depend on it. If we can't save room for the most loved animal on earth, what does that say about us?'
Scientists are not sure how long giant pandas live in the wild. But those in mainland zoos are said to have lived up to this number of years