Not simply black and white: disagreement on status of China’s iconic panda after they’re taken off ‘endangered’ list

Beijing debates international conservation union’s new classification of the species as merely ‘vulnerable’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 2:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 11:11pm

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission announced on Sunday that it had moved the conservation status of the giant panda from “endangered” to “vulnerable”.

In a statement issued on Monday, the State Forestry Administration said it was too early to change the panda’s status, insisting the bear remained “endangered”.

China thinks giant pandas aren’t out of the woods yet

The upgraded status of the giant panda was widely expected as the wild population has grown 17 per cent over the past decade due to conservation efforts, but debate about the conservation methods remain.

The following are the bare facts about pandas.

Wild population

The latest census in 2014 found that there were 1,864 giant pandas living in the wild. In the 1980s, the population was reduced to 1,000 due to poaching and habitat loss.

Habitat

The giant panda was once widespread throughout southern and eastern China, as well as in neighbouring Myanmar and northern Vietnam.

Due to expanding human settlement and development, however, the species is now restricted to around 20 isolated patches of bamboo forest in six mountain ranges in China’s Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.

Conservation efforts

Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has set up 13 panda reserves, enacted laws and regulations to ban poaching and halted logging on the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River, in addition to replanting bamboo forests to restore wild panda habitats.

Giant pandas ‘to be deemed at lower risk level’ as population increases

Ample funding has been channelled into panda protection from both Chinese and foreign governments and NGOs. Chinese governments are also building artificial breeding centres.

Should the bears be caged or free?

The photogenic pandas are one of the world’s most beloved species, and images and videos of baby pandas in breeding centres attract thousands of online viewers. Panda breeding centres in China are also becoming popular tourist destinations.

But in the eyes of conservationists, pandas raised in warm artificial enclosures and their cousins living wild in the mountains are poles apart, both ecologically and aesthetically.

Artificial breeding and rearing of pandas at breeding centres has proved to be successful, so Chinese authorities plan to build more such centres as they easily demonstrate conservation success, but this trend worries conservationists.

They say the funds used to build the centres could be better used to protect pandas in the wild, although the wild bears have fewer photo opportunities and do not attract as many followers as baby pandas in captivity.

How baby panda Bei Bei became diplomat in US-China relations

Another issue is that the proliferation of breeding centres can lead to wild pandas being captured to populate them, which has the same effect as poaching on the wild population. In some places, this has already happened.

Attempts to return pandas bred in captivity to the wild have met with scant success.

Breeding pandas to increase the population also fails to solve the fundamental crisis that the species is facing – the decrease on suitable habitats due to expanded human activities, such as road construction, mining and building of the power infrastructure.