Giant pandas no longer 'endangered' in China, says conservation union

 Giant panda Mei Xiang rests in her enclosure August 24, 2016 at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.
Giant panda Mei Xiang rests in her enclosure August 24, 2016 at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. PHOTO: AFP

HONOLULU, Hawaii (AFP) - Decades of conservation work in China have paid off for the giant panda, whose status was changed Sunday from "endangered" to "vulnerable" due to a population rebound, officials said.

The improvement for the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) was announced 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 indicate that the previous population decline has been arrested, and the population has started to increase," said the IUCN's updated report.

"The improved status confirms that the Chinese government's efforts to conserve this species are effective." The cornerstones of the Chinese 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 program, China has also loaned some bears to zoos abroad in exchange for cash, and re-invested that money in conservation efforts.

"When push comes to shove, the Chinese have done a really good job with pandas," said John Robinson, a primatologist and chief conservation officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

"So few species are actually downlisted, it really is a reflection of the success of conservation," he told AFP at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, the largest meeting of its kind which had drawn more than 9,000 heads of state, policy makers and environmentalists to Honolulu.

The IUCN 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.

"And thus panda population is projected to decline, reversing the gains made during the last two decades," said the IUCN report.

"To protect this iconic species, it is critical that the effective forest protection measures are continued and that emerging threats are addressed."

The IUCN said 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 species - including both plants and animals.

Almost one third - 23,928 - are threatened with extinction, it said.