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Are Pandas Endangered? Reasons & Conservation Efforts

The animal kingdom contains a variety of unique and charismatic animals. Pandas are mammals that survive on an omnivore diet, but they mostly eat bamboo. They are native to China, but you can find them in reserves across the world. But are pandas endangered? With vulnerable status, yes, they are.

This article discusses the giant panda but also the brown and red pandas. Here, we will explore pandas’ habitats and the reasons for their endangered status. We will also discuss the various efforts and actions set up to rescue the panda population. 

Species of Pandas   

The Giant Panda 

giant panda
Photo by J. Patrick Fischer on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

Giant pandas, also called panda bears, are black-and-white bear species with black fur on their legs, shoulders, muzzle, eye patches, and ears. They are almost as big as the American black bear. Giant pandas weigh up to 275 pounds and grow 6 feet tall.

Male giant pandas are bigger than their female counterparts, which grow below 220 pounds. Many believe that giant pandas' contrasting colors help them stand out from other pandas in the forest, while others think they help them camouflage on bamboo trees and other tree tops. 

They spend up to 12 hours daily eating. Their primary food source is bamboo. Panda bears eat bamboo leaves and stalks, kiwi fruits, insects, fish, and small mammals. A giant panda has an opposable digit known as the panda’s thumb. The panda’s thumb is a pad of skin lying over the wrist bone.

Another interesting fact about giant pandas is their reproductive cycle. Females reproduce every two years or more. Several attempts to breed pandas in captivity have been futile. They are reluctant to breed in captivity.

Qinling Panda 

qinling panda
Photo by AilieHM on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

QinLing panda, also known as the brown panda, is a subspecies of the giant panda. It gained recognition as a subspecies of panda bears in 2005. It is a smaller panda with dark brown and light brown fur, unlike a giant panda’s black and white coat. Brown pandas are a rare panda species. Records show there were about 100 brown pandas in 20012.

The Red Panda

red panda
Photo by Mathias Appel on Flickr (Public Domain).

The red panda has other names like Firefox, Red Cat Bear, and Himalayan raccoon. Red pandas are about 62.5 cm long and weigh up to 6.2 kg. They have long tails that grow up to 47 cm long. Their tails have 12 alternating marking rings of red and buff.

Red pandas are different from panda bears. It has a round head with large and pointed ears. Panda bears have black eye patches, while red pandas have white faces with reddish-brown marks beneath their eyes. Their top coat is long and coarse, while the reddish-brown undercoat is soft and woolly. 

Mature red pandas don’t interact with each other unless it is the mating season. They breed once a year, giving birth to an average of 2 cubs. Red pandas prefer to eat berries, blossoms, bird eggs, bamboo leaves, and small leaves from other plants. They have a shorter lifespan compared to the panda bears. 

Red pandas have a maximum lifespan of 14 years, while giant pandas live up to 34 years in captivity. The wild populations of red pandas live 8-10 years, and giant panda’s wild populations live up to 10-15 years.

Panda Habitat: Where Do Pandas Live?  

Most pandas are in six mountain ranges in China. Pandas had many habitats in southern and eastern China. However, urbanization forced them into bamboo forests. These forests are in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces, China. Some wild pandas prefer the Minshan and Qinling mountains.

Red pandas are native to temperate forests with bamboo and hollow trees. You will find them on the Himalayan mountain ranges at 2,200 to 4,800 meters in northern Burma, Nepal, and India. They also live in the upper Min Valley of western Sichuan Province and the Liakiang Range, Western Yunnan Province.

Panda bears live in mountain forests with broadleaf and conifer trees. They occupy a total area of 5,900 sq. km in China. You will find them in Sichuan province, Gansu, and Shanxi provinces. Brown pandas are rare. However, sighting reports of the wild population show they live in the Qinling Mountains. They live at elevations ranging between 1,300 to 3,000 meters.Are pandas endangered?    

Are pandas endangered? Yes, pandas are an endangered species

The wild population of pandas in China was 1,100 in the 1980s. The statistics landed pandas in the endangered species category. The Chinese government and other organizations made conservation efforts to prevent the extinction of pandas. 

A fourth survey conducted at the end of 2013 shows that the conservation efforts to save these charismatic species were not in vain. The population of wild pandas in China has increased from 1100 to about 1900.

The increase in the wild population downgraded pandas from endangered to vulnerable status in April 2016. From 1965 to 1988, researchers classified pandas in the wild as rare. However, their population survived and was classified as endangered from 1990 to 20085.

Reasons pandas are on the brink of extinction  

Pandas are vulnerable to extinction for some reasons. These are the threats to biodiversity, especially to pandas: 

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation 

panda on tree
Photo by Bruce Hong on Unsplash.

Pandas are endangered primarily because of habitat destruction and fragmentation. They are limited to areas with bamboo trees because bamboo is their primary source of nutrients. However, several human activities are destroying the panda’s habitat. 

One of the activities destroying the panda’s habitat is agricultural practices. Surveys conducted by the Ministry of Forestry of China showed that developing land for farming destroys panda’s home. Panda reserves are unsafe until the Chinese government resettles people who use the land for agriculture or issues and enforces land clearance.

Another reason for habitat fragmentation is deforestation and urbanization. We cut down trees to clear land for urban development and harvest timber. Deforestation occurs when gathering firewood for fires or to access natural resources. Research conducted in the 1980s showed over 20 timber logging units operating in the panda habitat4.

The Chinese government banned logging in panda reserves in 1988. However, the ban is futile. Construction and human interference are still ongoing in panda areas. These activities stress panda populations by isolating them into small groups. Habitat fragmentation makes it difficult for them to reproduce and increases the risk of extinction.

Also, destroying bamboo forests leaves pandas vulnerable to bamboo die-offs. Bamboos die every 40 to 120 years, depending on their species. Pandas used to migrate to new areas when this happened. However, they can’t migrate in search of a new food source because of deforestation.

Climate Change 

Climate change also contributes to the problems of endangered species. Global warming kills 99% of the panda's diet, bamboo. Scientists found that most of the current bamboo reserves will die within 50 to 100 years because of global warming3.

Pandas will starve to death in the absence of bamboo trees. The environment is becoming too hot and wet for bamboo trees to grow in areas like Qinling Mountain. Qinling Mountain is home to 17% of the panda population. Bamboo only survives when temperatures are between 9°C and 17°C, with rainfall of about 900 to 1200 annually. 

Global warming is rapidly reducing the range of areas that meet these requirements, causing pandas to leave protected areas to search for food. Scientists estimate the suitable living areas in Qinling Mountain will be reduced by 62%. The reduction will potentially lead to a 12% reduction in the panda population at the end of the century1.

Hunting and Poaching  

panda eating bamboo
Photo by Sid Balachandran on Unsplash.

Hunting and poaching of pandas in the wild also contributed to their decline in the 1980s. People hunted them for their fur until China set strict laws and penalties to prevent the extinction of the charismatic species. The traps set for other animals (black bears and musk deer) harm pandas. The traps can cause injury or kill a panda.

Reproduction Difficulties 

A common practice to revive an endangered species is captive breeding. However, it is difficult for pandas to give birth to a live cub. Pandas naturally have a low reproductivity rate. Females are in an estrous state for 1 to 3 days. They breed every two years. Sometimes, they take longer to reproduce.

Several attempts to get pandas to mate have been futile. Researchers gave panda bears enhancement drugs to help them mate with the females during the three days of arousal. They also showed them videos of other pandas mating, hoping it would elicit a sexual response and lead to reproduction.  

A panda conservation program at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo even tried to artificially inseminate the panda bears because the bears were uninterested in each other. For example, their first male panda, Shi Shi, had no interest in Bai Yun. Another set of panda bears, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, tried to mate for ten years without success. 

However, it takes months to know if it was successful. Detecting pregnancy in females is so tricky because they produce pregnancy hormones all year round. It is also difficult to detect the fetus because it is beneath layers of fat, bladder, and undigested bamboo. Fetuses also get reabsorbed.

Conservation Efforts By The Chinese Government

China created the first four panda reserves in the early 1960s to protect them. The government issued a decree banning the hunting of pandas. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) signed an agreement with China to work on panda conservation together. They were the first international conservation organization to work in China.

The WWF and other organizations challenged the United States of America regarding the import permits for short-term loans to the US zoos of giant pandas from China. The legal battle led to the US government drafting a new policy to protect pandas in the late 1980s. 

The policy ensured the importation of pandas must be loans of at least ten years, accompanied by research and conservation plans. It also ensured that the revenue generated from loaning the pandas goes to the conservation of wild pandas.

The WWF also funded research and satellite imagery in 1989. The research program showed a 50% reduction in viable panda habitats in Sichuan Province.  The Chinese Ministry of Forestry and WWF launched a panda management plan to protect 60% of the panda habitat.

The Chinese Ministry of Forestry and the WWF developed bamboo corridors to link fragmented forests. These corridors helped pandas move to new areas to find more food and mates. They have some community projects to reduce the reliance of indigenous people on panda habitats. These community development projects include: 

  • Helping local people find a larger market for local goods like honey, vegetables, and fruits. 
  • They provided local people with other livelihoods to reduce the impact of medicinal plant harvesting and poaching. The alternative livelihood provides sustainable incomes for local families. 
  • They introduced local communities to alternative energy sources that don't depend on panda habitat. They introduced wood-saving stones and bio-gas from pig manures to reduce wood harvesting from the forest. 
  • They also taught the local communities how to harvest wood sustainably and introduced them to new income-generating activities like sustainable tourism. 

Conclusion   

Pandas have no natural predators, but they are still struggling to survive. We need more conservation efforts to increase the survival of pandas. For starters, we should control urbanization activities to protect wildlife habitats. Controlling urbanization also reduces the risks of global warming, ensuring that pandas don’t lose their food sources. 

We need more research on panda reproduction. Getting pandas to produce more cubs will ensure they don’t go extinct. Also, more efforts should be made to educate the public about wildlife and conservation efforts. 

1

Fan, J., Li, J., Xia, R., Hu, L., Wu, X., & Guo, L. (2014). Assessing the impact of climate change on the habitat distribution of the giant panda in the Qinling Mountains of China. Ecological Modelling, 274, 12–20.

2

Wan, Q., Wu, H., & Fang, S. (2005). A NEW SUBSPECIES OF GIANT PANDA (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) FROM SHAANXI, CHINA. Journal of Mammalogy, 86(2), 397–402.

3

Li, R., Xu, M., Wong, M., Qiu, S., Li, X., Ehrenfeld, D., & Dianmo, L. (2015b). Climate change threatens giant panda protection in the 21st century. Biological Conservation, 182, 93–101.

4

Leung, H. (2019). Reconsideration of Giant Pandas' Endangered Threat Level.

5

Swaisgood, R., Wang, D. & Wei, F. (2016). Ailuropoda melanoleuca (errata version published in 2017). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by Junchen Zhou on Pexels.
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