Gentle Giants
Preserving more habitat for China’s giant pandas is providing a giant payoff

by Amina Khan / © 2018, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


Saving the giant panda from extinction isn’t just good for the bears—it’s good for the bottom line too, a new analysis by an international team of scientists shows.

  The results, published in the journal Current Biology, highlight the economic benefits that they say go hand in hand with environmental conservation.

  Giant pandas are the rarest of the bear species. They make their homes in the mountainous bamboo forests of western China. With their round faces, black-and-white markings and toddling gait, they may also be the most beloved.


Difficult times

  But pandas fell on hard times in recent decades, thanks largely to human encroachment. In 1980, their habitat covered 40,599 square kilometers; by 1990, it had been cut to just 12,340. This is a major threat to the bears in large part because bamboo, their main food source, is so low in nutrients that each bear must roam a lot of land in order to find and eat enough of it.

  In [the ’80s], their numbers plummeted from 2,459 to just 1,112. In 1984, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the giant panda an endangered species and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List followed suit in 1990. Their habitat had become fragmented, making it harder for pandas to move to new areas to find food and seek out mates. This is a particular problem for pandas, who breed infrequently, which means it’s much more difficult for their populations to recover.


Making a comeback

  In the years since, Chinese officials began making significant efforts to save the panda from extinction, establishing more panda reserves and increasing the reserve area threefold. Panda numbers gradually began to recover, hitting 1,596 in 2000 and 1,864 in 2010. In 2016, the IUCN Red List reclassified the panda from endangered to vulnerable.

  “It is clear that society’s investment has started to pay off in terms of panda population recovery,” the study authors wrote.



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