HONOLULU • Decades of conservation work in China have paid off for the giant panda, with its status upgraded from "endangered" to "vulnerable" due to a population rebound.
The improvement for the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) was announced on Sunday as part of an update to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the world's most comprehensive inventory of plants and animals.
The latest estimates show a population of 1,864 adult giant pandas. Although exact numbers are not available, adding cubs to the projection would mean about 2,060 pandas exist today, said the IUCN.
"Evidence from a series of range-wide national surveys indicates that the previous population decline has been arrested, and the population has started to increase," said the IUCN's updated report.
The cornerstones of the Chinese government's effort to bring back its fuzzy, black-and-white national icon have included an intense effort to replant bamboo forests, which provide food and shelter for the bears.
Through its "rent-a-panda" captive breeding programme, China has also loaned some bears to zoos abroad in exchange for cash, and reinvested that money in conservation efforts.
"When push comes to shove, the Chinese have done a really good job with pandas," Dr John Robinson, a primatologist and chief conservation officer of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said.
"So few species are actually downlisted; it really is a reflection of the success of conservation," he said at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, the largest meeting of its kind, which drew more than 9,000 heads of state, policymakers and environmentalists to Honolulu.
According to Dr Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, the improvement was "not rocket science" but came from the hard work of controlling poaching and replanting bamboo forests.
"This is something to celebrate because it is not a part of the world where we expect this to happen," Dr Stuart said at the announcement of the updated Red List.
Experts warned, however, that the good news for pandas could be short-lived.
A warming planet, driven by fossil fuel burning, is predicted to wipe out more than one-third of the panda's bamboo habitat in the next 80 years.
That means the panda population is projected to decline, and any gains realised to date could be reversed, said Dr Carlo Rondinini, mammal assessment coordinator of the Sapienza University of Rome.
"The concern now is that although the population has slowly increased - and it is still very small - several models predict a reduction of the extent of bamboo forests in China in the coming decades due to climate change," he said.
The IUCN report said that China's plan to expand its conservation effort for pandas "is a positive step and must be strongly supported to ensure its effective implementation".
The IUCN Red List includes 82,954 plant and animal species.
Almost one-third - 23,928 - are threatened with extinction, it said.