Natural habitats of China’s beloved bear must be protected along with the animal itself

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/12 17:43:40

As the country develops a new plan for a national panda park, it must balance conservation with tourism

The habitat of giant pandas in China has shrunk and become fragmented after their status was downgraded from "endangered" to "vulnerable"

Experts say damage to the pandas' habitat is caused by road building and logging. Tourism also has negative effects

China is building walkways to connect the segments, as well as setting boundaries to keep humans away

As the country develops a new plan for a national panda park, it must balance tourism with preservation

A tourist takes a photo of a giant panda in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. Photo: VCG

Despite the fact that the number of giant pandas is once again on the rise and its risk status has just been downgraded from endangered to vulnerable, a new study by Chinese zoologists found that pandas are actually at a greater risk today than three decades ago.

Ouyang Zhiyun, deputy director of Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, led his team in analyzing satellite data about panda habitats over the past four decades.

The team found that China's pandas are facing greater risks now due to fragmentation and shrinking of their natural habitats as well as species segregation. The damning findings were published three weeks ago in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

According to Ouyang's team, International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) evaluation system only factors about the overall number of pandas while neglecting other potential threats.

"Due to forest harvesting and the construction of roads and transportation infrastructure as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes and debris flow, the area of panda habitats today is smaller than in 1976 and 1988 and they are more 'fragmented'," Ouyang told Xinhua News Agency.

Last year, IUCN downgraded the giant panda's extinction status based on 2014 data by Chinese authorities, which showed that there were 1,864 wild pandas, an increase of 17 percent compared with 2005.

In comparison with this improvement, however, Ouyang has found that giant panda habitats decreased by 4.9 percent between 1976 and 2001 and only increased by 0.4 percent from 2001 to 2013. In sum, habitat recovery has not offset previous habitat loss.

He said the primary reason for this habitat loss and fragmentation is human activity. For example, roads are dividing pandas' living spaces; road density in China in 2013 was 2.7 times larger than in 1976. Habitats impacted within 500 meters from roads increased by 6.6 times, read his report.

Unethical tourism

Ouyang told media that the recent rapid development of tourism has also brought many new troubles to protected panda habitats. 

In an undercover interview, the founder of a tourism agency providing wildlife tour services bragged that it is easier to see pandas up close in Qinling Mountains than in Sichuan Province, as the Qinling Mountains area "has a higher density of wild pandas."

He claimed that he could take tourists inside protected panda habitats. "Now it's strictly scrutinized. It will take us some time to bribe people working there to get you in," he said.

Qinling in Shaanxi Province is a major habitat for giant pandas. The adorable animals mainly live in northern Sichuan, southern Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

The unethical operator added that spring and winter are the best seasons to go on a panda tour. The cost of such a panda trip depends on the number of tourists in the group and how many days they will spend there. The man did not provide an exact amount, but noted that "it won't be cheap to see a panda."

"Even though you pay to see pandas, we won't refund you money if you are unlucky in spotting a wild panda. It's a chance of luck," he said.

In a previous Global Times report, agencies were quoted charging tourists high fees for an opportunity to "take care of" pandas in captivity. Experts have cautioned that such unethical tourism behavior will have negative influences on pandas.

The severe fragmentation of giant pandas' habitats is now leading to segregation among different species, which disturbs their genealogical advancement. Some 30 panda species currently live in six mountains, 18 of which have less than 10 pandas and face extinction, according to Ouyang's report.

"Because they are mammals, long-term inbreeding is bad for the improvement of the species as well as its numbers," Gu Xiaodong, an official with Forestry Department of Sichuan Province, told the Sichuan Daily newspaper. Gu added that the long distances between each major panda habitat poses obstacles for their interaction.

Preservation efforts

China's government and relevant organs have attempted to mend the fragmented habitat of Chinese pandas for many years.

Wan Hui, director of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF)'s Xi'an Office, told the Global Times previously that WWF has been cooperating with local protection zones and governments to create walkways that connect different zones with high densities of giant pandas.

The project was launched in 2003 in Sichuan and Shaanxi. Workers there have been planting bamboo trees in the hopes of restoring giant panda habitats. Even though there are different theories on how the recovery should be implemented, in practice there are many constraints.

Scientists have had to fumble and experiment before finding methods that work in each particular region. Furthermore, in practical protection work, results are visible only in the long term.

"For example, when we were planting a certain type of bamboo, local protection zone workers found that it was hopeless and dying rapidly. But the second year we tried planting the bamboo, they grew well," Wan said. "When you are doing detailed, practical work, it's impossible to see quick returns."

China also plans to open a giant panda national reserve by 2020, which links isolated habitats in high-density reserves across Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. The planned 27,134-square-kilometer national park will have 111 pandas with 1,119 square kilometers of habitat land and 900 square meters of potential habitat area.

The park is expected to attract many visitors and tourists from around the world, but the government said it will make conservation a priority. The park will be divided into three parts: core protection land, ecological restoration and tourism and education zones.

According to Ouyang's team, additional measures could contribute to the long-term survival of the panda and prevent its conservation status from slipping back to "endangered." He believes that new legislation should set "ecological red lines" - boundaries that delineate mandatory conservation of key habitats and corridors to prevent further habitat erosion and human disturbance. Collective forests located within them can be converted to State-owned to reduce the risk of their being deforested through collective forest tenure reform.

Furthermore, nature reserves should expand to include key panda habitats inside the "red line" areas, given that two-thirds of the panda habitat lies outside the reserve. Corridors should also be established to connect isolated animals. The development of road tunnels should be preferred over traditional roads in corridor areas.

Through the new urbanization program, more people living within a panda habitat should be encouraged to relocate to less-ecologically-sensitive areas. Panda conservation should also take into account the requirements of other endangered species, including ecosystem services such as water supply.

Such an integrated conservation policy will gain more support from not only the government but also the public. The establishment of panda national parks will be able to coordinate and balance conservation with tourism development.

Panda Stats

67 reserves were established by 2013; 1,864 giant pandas live in China by 2013

Habitats decreased by 4.9% from 1976 to 2001, but increased by 0.4% from 2001 to 2013

Mean patch size of the remaining habitats decreased by 24.0% from 1976 to 2001, but increased by 1.8% between 2001 and 2013

Between 1982 and 2000, the human population within the panda's range increased by 13.5%

Between 2000 and 2010, the human population within the panda's range increased by 0.5%

(Source: State Forestry Administration of China, Nature Ecology & Evolution)

Xie Wenting contributed to the story

Newspaper headline: Panda paradise lost

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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