Status In Nature And Threats

The giant panda is endemic to the mountains of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi Provinces in China. The species is now found in only six mountain ranges at the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, distributed in as many as 30 to 40 distinctive populations (Fig. 1.2; Plate I). The Min Shan Mountains are the heart of panda numbers and activities, probably sustaining half the remaining wild individuals (Lumpkin & Seidensticker, 2002). Historically, the species was widely distributed and may have numbered 100000 animals, but has declined to likely no more than 1500 animals in total. In reality, this number is only a broad estimate - even recent surveys have been unable to produce an absolute number of giant pandas living in situ. This is largely because these are extreme habitats with steeply ascending ridges that plummet into deep and narrow valleys. It is exceedingly difficult to traverse this terrain, let alone see elusive giant pandas or their signs. Historically, these rugged landscapes have protected the region's biodiversity. However, as China's human population continues to grow, human settlements are expanding into these remote areas.

As with virtually all endangered species, the giant panda has been most affected by human forces, especially overall habitat loss as a result of logging and farming operations. More than half of this habitat was destroyed from the mid 1970s through the 1980s, a time when there was enormous concern and publicity about conserving the species. The magnitude of this destructive impact has been effectively illustrated by Lumpkin and Seidensticker (2002) who have pointed out that the resulting ecospace for all giant pandas became 5000 square miles, which is less than 25% of the size of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Giant pandas became the ecological losers in terms of total habitat available. Compounding this problem was habitat fragmentation, the breaking apart of existing forest into small patches with no corridors for

j Panda distribution

Figure 1.2. Range map for remaining fragmented populations of giant pandas living in nature. (See also Plate I.)

j Panda distribution

Figure 1.2. Range map for remaining fragmented populations of giant pandas living in nature. (See also Plate I.)

genetic exchange. Although no one is sure of the number of individual pandas in each of these isolated areas, it is highly probable that some populations are not self-sustaining. As human demands escalate, many nature reserves are being heavily used for economic purposes (Liu et al., 1997). Furthermore, many of the official protected areas (currently more than 40 reserves) are severely under-resourced, lacking the infrastructure (roads, buildings), personnel (managers, field staff) and equipment (ranging from vehicles to binoculars) to attend properly to daily and routine activities, let alone conservation priorities. And, of course, not all giant pandas live inside protected areas.

Historic dangers for the wild giant panda included hunting as trophies (mostly by westerners), museums and zoos. Hunting was officially banned in 1963 for any purpose. Poaching still occasionally causes mortality, although most of these are probably incidental deaths in snares targeting other species rather than deliberate acts directed at giant pandas. Until recently, it was common practice to 'rescue' giant pandas from the wild to support zoo breeding programmes. As described in Chapter 2, the ex situ breeding community committed to abandoning the practice of taking giant pandas from nature in 1996.

Adequate supply of appropriate food sources has been debated as a potential threat, especially given the significance by the popular press to the flowering die-offs of bamboo. Lumpkin and Seidensticker (2002) indicated that this impact is probably less significant than once believed because most habitats contain at least two bamboo species that do not flower in tandem. Thus, the panda simply switches bamboo species, if necessary. Total available bamboo also is not likely a significant factor because, although quality generally is marginal, supply is usually generous and rather consistent. There is growing concern, however, about panda-human competition for wild bamboo, including shoots (a dietary favourite of both species) and stems that have many uses by people ranging from basket weaving to tools to fencing.

Certainly, a threat to giant pandas is the lack of broad-based knowledge about their biology and numbers in nature. It is impossible to manage any habitat or species without understanding its status through systematic and continuous studies. Pioneering studies that methodically monitored life history, behaviour, mating and foraging were conducted by Schaller et al. (1989), Reid et al. (1989), Pan & Lu (1993), Pan (1995), Pan et al. (1998) and Lu et al. (2000, 2001). However, given all of the unknowns about contemporary panda activities (including how many pandas are out there), a continued lack of basic information certainly hinders appropriate decision-making to best manage wild populations.

Finally, some have asserted that the ex situ (captive) population threatens giant pandas living in situ. Essentially, the argument is that if too much attention is directed at pandas living in zoos, then the wild population is 'out of sight, out of mind and out of luck' - the distraction paradigm. The concern is that because there are healthy, reproductively fit pandas in zoos, there would be no urgency, or even a real need, to protect wild counterparts or their habitats. In our opinion, this theory is not valid, especially considering the intense worldwide interest in the species. We fully realise, however, that this theory could have validity, but only if we failed to clearly articulate and demonstrate the value of individuals managed ex situ, especially their potential in contributing to the conservation of the wild giant pandas. Much of this book is dedicated to this goal.

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