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Best chance to protect giant pandas


At only about 1,000 in the wild, China’s giant panda is among the most endangered species in the world. But there is still hope if we act fast. The panda’s greatest threat is habitat loss and new research identifies high-quality habitat that, if protected, could increase the species’ chances of long-term survival.

"The current network of nature reserves provides protection for less than half of the pandas’ remaining habitat and fails to conserve essential habitat for dispersal," say Colby Loucks and Eric Dinerstein of the World Wildlife Fund-US in Washington DC, and four co-authors in the April issue of Conservation Biology. The giant panda’s range has shrunk from the lowland forests of southeast China, northern Vietnam and northern Myanmar to six mountain ranges along China’s Tibetan Plateau, where only 24 isolated populations survive today. Now, however, there is a window of opportunity to protect more of the panda’s habitat, thanks to two conservation policies recently adopted by the Chinese government to help control flooding. First, under the National Forest Conservation Program, logging is banned in natural forests until 2010; and second, the Grain-to-Green policy is restoring forests on steep agricultural lands. These policies "have the potential to protect and restore panda habitat across the panda’s entire range," say Loucks, Dinerstein and their colleagues.

Giant pandas need both high- and low-elevation forests as well as dispersal corridors. They need both types of forest because each supplies their primary food during part of the year: during the summer, pandas eat a kind of bamboo that grows at high elevations; and during the rest of the year, they eat another kind that grows at low elevations.

To help identify unprotected areas that are critical to the giant pandas’ survival, Loucks, Dinerstein and their colleagues mapped the extent and quality of their habitat in China’s Qinling Mountains, which have about a fifth of the remaining wild population. The researchers used satellite images and other existing data to determine the extent of remaining natural forest that could support pandas, and divided it into core and secondary habitat. The former has both of the bamboo species that pandas depend on, while the latter only has one of them.

Loucks, Dinerstein and their colleagues calculated that the Qinling Mountains have nearly 900 square miles of forest that could support pandas. While nearly 700 square miles of this is core habitat, it is fragmented into four parts and less than half of it is protected by the existing network of nature reserves. The researchers identified five unprotected areas totalling about 400 square miles that should be added to the existing reserves: three core areas and two linkage zones, which would let pandas get from one core area to another.

Next, the researchers call for identifying unprotected giant panda habitat in the other five mountain ranges where the species still survives. "Most are so remote that there are no people or infrastructure development there," says Dinerstein, which increases the chances of saving the pandas.

Loucks’ co-authors are: Lu Zhi, who did this work while at the World Wide Fund for Nature-China in Beijing and is now at the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund in Beijing; and Wang Dajun, Fu Dali and Wang Hao of the Giant Panda Conservation and Research Center in Beijing, China.

Colby Loucks (202-778-9671,
Eric Dinerstein (202-778-9616,

Colby Loucks | EurekAlert!
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