Panda numbers still at risk as habitat more fragmented: Study

China's giant panda had a smaller habitat in 2013 than when it was declared endangered more than 20 years earlier, researchers said, with their living space coming under threat from earthquakes, road construction, tourism and global warming.
China's giant panda had a smaller habitat in 2013 than when it was declared endangered more than 20 years earlier, researchers said, with their living space coming under threat from earthquakes, road construction, tourism and global warming.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • China's fiercely protected giant panda had a smaller habitat in 2013 than when it was declared endangered more than 20 years earlier, researchers said.

What living space they had was much more fragmented, and often in areas under threat from earthquakes, road construction, tourism or global warming, they wrote in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Last year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) moved the giant panda from the "endangered" to the less-threatened "vulnerable" category on its Red List. But the iconic black-and-white bear is not out of the woods yet, according to the new study.

The study's co-author Stuart Pimm of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, told Agence France-Presse: "We are not arguing with the IUCN assessment that the panda is less threatened now than in the past."

But, he said: "While there is some good news, there is also bad news: The panda habitat is much more fragmented than in the past and small fragments may not hold viable populations of pandas."

The panda's conservation status is a barometer of global conservation efforts, according to the study's authors. The IUCN's assessment, they said, was based "solely" on population numbers, "while ignoring emerging threats".

"Our results show a more complicated picture that warns against complacency" in conservation efforts, the team wrote.

The researchers used satellite data collected over four decades to evaluate the giant panda habitat from 1976 to 2013.

Suitable panda living space decreased by nearly 5 per cent until 2001, but increased by 0.4 per cent from then to 2013, they found.

Initial losses have not been offset. Compared with 1988, when the IUCN listed the panda as "rare" - equivalent to "endangered" in a later update of the Red List categories - its habitat in 2013 was 1.7 per cent smaller, the authors said.

Commercial logging was the most harmful activity to panda habitat, the team said, but the creation of nature reserves "significantly" slowed the loss of living space. Road construction is another driver of habitat loss and fragmentation, while tourism has increased throughout the panda's range.

And climate change risks altering the distribution of bamboo, the panda's main food source, the team said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2017, with the headline 'Panda numbers still at risk as habitat more fragmented: Study'. Print Edition | Subscribe