Panda habitat is shrinking and tourists are adding to the problem, study says

Overall habitat in southwest China decreased in size by 4.9 per cent from 1976 to 2001, researchers found

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 3:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 October, 2017, 3:40pm

Growing numbers of tourists visiting southwest China to see the iconic panda are contributing to its habitat loss, environmental scientists warn.

A study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution on Monday found that the habitat of giant pandas has become smaller and more fragmented over the past four decades.

The overall habitat shrank by 4.9 per cent from 1976 to 2001, according to the researchers, while the average size of each area where pandas lived decreased by 24 per cent in that period.

Although the numbers improved slightly from 2001 to 2013 thanks to conservation work, the recovery failed to offset habitat loss in the past.

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The research, conducted by scientists in China and the United States, was based on satellite and remote sensing data from 1976 to 2013.

The authors said road construction, logging and earthquakes had contributed to previous habitat loss, and a recent increase in tourism had added to the problem.

China has invested heavily in panda conservation, establishing nature reserves, planting bamboo forests and setting up breeding programmes. It also plans to open a huge Giant Panda National Park in 2020, linking dozens of isolated habitats.

Meanwhile, more people are travelling to these reserves in Sichuan province to see the animal, and contributing tourist dollars to the area.

The planned 27,134 sq km national park is expected to bring even more visitors, but the government says it will protect the ecosystem of the conservation area, stressing its role in providing an experience of nature that also educates tourists.

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Fan Zhiyong, an expert on panda conservation at WWF China, said it would be highly unlikely tourists would see any wild pandas in such a park but the presence of humans could be damaging to the animals.

“These animals are extremely sensitive to any disturbance,” Fan said. “When humans come in, pandas go out.”

Panda numbers have rebounded in the past decade because of conservation efforts – national surveys put the wild population at 1,864 in 2014, far fewer than 40 years ago but up slightly from a decade earlier – prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature last year to lower its status from “endangered” to “vulnerable”.

But the authors of the study said that status failed to take into account the emerging threats from shrinking habitats.

At the moment, 18 of the 30 panda groups living in the wild in southwest China have fewer than 10 individual pandas – meaning they face a high risk of local extinction, according to the study.

“Currently, pandas are facing great threats and challenges from habitat fragmentation, population isolation, infrastructure development, tourism and climate change,” the researchers said.

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Fan said more research was needed to determine how to balance tourism with panda conservation work.

“This is a problem faced by all nature reserves in the world,” Fan said. “China still lags behind when it comes to studying the effects of tourism on the ecosystem.”