The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is the national animal of China and one of the best known wild animals in the world, because it is considered a symbol of the protection of endangered species. The Chinese government recently communicated that giant pandas are no longer at risk of extinction: while there is good news on the recovery of the panda population, on the other, the threats to their habitat and the habits that they have have not disappeared. they had jeopardized its survival.
In the Eighties, the giant pandas that could be counted all over the world were just over a thousand, both due to problems related to the loss of their natural habitat, and due to poaching and illegal capture. After more than thirty years of massive efforts by the government of China, where most of the pandas live in the wild, the population has started to increase again and within ten years it has grown by 17 percent to 1,864. .
According to data released by the Chinese news agency Xinhua, in 2020 there were 633 pandas bred in captivity, of which 44 were born the same year: more than double those needed to preserve the diversity of the genetic heritage of the species, essential for survival.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the international body recognized by the UN that evaluates which animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, had included giant pandas in the slightly less endangered categories already in 2016 thanks to the efforts of China. In recent years, new initiatives have been launched to preserve the species: for example, work has begun to connect and expand the 67 natural reserves designed for pandas that currently exist, with the idea of creating a huge park that will extend between the Chinese provinces. of Sichuan, Ningxia and Shaanxi.
In the province of Sichuan alone, where most of the wild pandas live, at least 4 thousand park rangers work to observe the behavior of the pandas and evaluate the environmental conditions to keep updated the number of living specimens in the wild and find new conservation strategies. .
Another measure introduced by China is to raise pandas in captivity and then release them in the wild at the right time, with the aim of encouraging the growth of the wild population.
However, this method is quite expensive and time-consuming, and among other things its effectiveness is still highly debated among experts. According to a 2019 study funded by the National Foundation of Natural Sciences and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, in fact, up to that moment, 14 pandas had been released, 12 of which grew up in captivity and two wild, which had previously been rescued and kept in captivity for some time: the only specimen that is known for sure reproduced after being released is one of the two grown in the wild.
(Map taken from a National Geographic article)
Fang Wang, a biologist at Shanghai Fudan University and a panda conservation expert, told al National Geographic that “twenty years ago no one was sure that the increase in population seen today could have occurred”.
In the twentieth century, the population of pandas in China decreased both due to the loss of habitat and due to illegal hunting, which was practiced in particular for fur, sold on the black market for amounts up to the equivalent of 100 thousand dollars (85 thousand euros today) . The situation began to improve from 1988, when, in parallel with the efforts to safeguard the species, a law came into force that introduced a ban on poaching and very severe penalties.
Nonetheless, according to conservation experts, it cannot be guaranteed that the giant panda population will continue to recover, and in addition to deforestation and the fragmentation of their natural habitat – mainly caused by works to make room for mines, infrastructures and tourist facilities – there are other threats to be aware of.
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As he told al National Geographic Diao Kunpeng, founder of a non-profit organization that carries out research in the natural reserves where pandas live, the activities for the protection of these animals have also benefited the takin population (Budorcas taxicolor), large ungulates of the Caprine subfamily.
In the Tangjiahe nature reserve, one of the areas of Sichuan inhabited by pandas, the number of specimens has almost tripled, from 500 in 1986 to 1,300 surveyed in 2015: the problem is that the presence of takin influences the growth of vegetation and has consequences on habits of pandas, Kunpeng explained.
The takin eat the bark of trees, exposing them to fungal infections and insect attack, causing a long-term change in forest composition and shrinking trees in favor of lower vegetation. By depriving the plants of their bark, however, they also remove an essential communication tool from pandas, which mark trees with a sticky substance secreted by the glands under their tails, essential for both communication and finding sexual partners.
Female panda Mei Xiang at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC on May 20, 2021 (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
Wild boars are also a big problem, which feed on the same food that pandas eagerly eat and which, among other things, carry diseases such as distemper and African swine fever, which can be transmitted to other species and which in the future will infect “Definitely” pandas too, Wang said.
The good news for the survival of this species comes from the food that has represented 99 percent of the diet of pandas for about two million years and on which their survival essentially depends: bamboo.
According to the IUCN, the panda population has grown in recent years thanks to China’s efforts to protect bamboo forests and increase their extent. A 2018 study, on the other hand, showed that bamboo resists well the increase in temperatures and the variation in rainfall expected due to climate change: this is also a good reassurance for the protection of the species.
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