Pandas: A Black and White Issue


In 1990, China’s lovely giant pandas with their distinctive black and white coats were listed as endangered species. However, in 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed their status from “endangered” to “vulnerable”. This declaration came after the growth of the panda population from 1,114 in 1988 to 1,596 in 2013, reaching 1,864 in 2014. The growth was a result of the effective forest protection and reforestation strategies implemented by the Chinese Government; still, climate change and other factors are predicted to eliminate more than 35% of the panda’s bamboo habitat in the next 80 years. The panda population is, thus, projected to decline again, reversing the gains made during the past two decades.

Giant pandas, officially known as Ailuropoda melanoleuca, are the rarest of the bear species; they live in the Chinese bamboo forests and exclusively rely on bamboo for their diet, ingesting more than thirteen kilograms daily just to survive. Pandas also play a crucial role in the bamboo forests ecosystem; they spread seeds, helping the plants grow, and offer an opportunity to many wild animals to survive including dwarf blue sheep, multicolored pheasants, and other endangered species, such as the golden monkey, takin, and crested ibis. Moreover, pandas are China’s national symbol and have significant economic benefits for local communities through ecotourism.

Research suggested that the changing climate and warming temperatures will possibly force the bamboo forests to move to higher grounds, where temperatures are cooler, depriving pandas from their natural habitat and main source of food. Furthermore, bamboo trees are subjected to periodic synchronous flowering and die-off—this monocarpic perennial plant dies after the one time in its life that it flowers and sets seed—forcing giant pandas to relocate to areas with healthy bamboo. For example, 250 giant pandas starved to death following a widespread flowering episode that occurred 1975‒1983 in the Pingwu and Nanping districts of the Sichuan Province.

Similarly, habitat destruction, agriculture, and infrastructure development pose a big threat to panda habitats. Giant pandas have been allowed to stay only at altitudes higher than the land that can be used for productive agriculture. Major highways and railways crisscrossing the bamboo forests deprive the pandas from moving from one forest fragment to another, which presents a lethal challenge to pandas. It is worth mentioning that, in 1980, panda habitats covered 40,599 km2; by 1990, it had been cut to just 12,340 km2.

In order to preserve the giant pandas and their habitats, and avoid listing them as “endangered species” again, their forests must be protected. These forests host some of the most important services to the communities that live in it and around them. For instance, forests allow crops growing and animals grazing, store and clean fresh water, and supply firewood, lumber, and many useful plants. Additionally, they manage storm runoff, sequester carbon in the soil, and help prevent erosion.

Researchers noted that investing in panda habitats has improved the living conditions of local residents. They used data from the Chinese Statistical Yearbook showing that the annual income in the Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces, located next to panda reserves, rose by an average of 56%, 2000‒2010. The annual income of the farmers in the counties within these provinces was raised by 64% on average.

Other conservation actions should include maintaining and increasing suitable connected habitats, and restoring habitats with bamboo species or their genotypes, which are adapted to a warmer climate. It is also essential to minimize habitat loss and fragmentation caused by agriculture and other land uses.

In short, conserving the giant panda habitat must be considered a national duty carried out by the Chinese Government because, with all the devastating human activity happening in their habitat, pandas can be listed as an endangered species again. Moreover, protection effort and enthusiasm from the global conservation community should be strengthened continuously to save these cherished creatures and the communities that live near their natural habitats.


*The original article was published in SCIplanet, Winter 2019 issue.

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