After decades of near extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature downlisted pandas from endangered to vulnerable in 2016. After some Chinese scientists found that declaration to be premature, they officially accepted it earlier this summer.
While dragons have been the national symbol of China throughout much of history, in the past few decades, pandas have filled that role—especially on the international level. With their black and white markings and adorable faces, pandas are one of the most recognizable animals in the world.
However, they’ve also had a difficult relationship with humans. Habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and low birth rates have all led to an exponential decrease in the giant panda population.
In the 1970s and 80s, there were less than 1,000 pandas in the wild. Most experts believed that extinction was inevitable.
The wonders of conservation
For 30 years, the Chinese government has embarked on a serious conservation mission to save the panda. It has built nature preserves, cracked down on poaching, and done everything in its power to ensure that pandas have a place alongside people.
Since 2016 and the initial IUCN declaration, China has built a Giant Panda National Park—a nature preserve in Sichuan province that covers 70% of the panda’s current habitat. The park is more than three times as big as Yellowstone.
At the same time, breeding programs across the world have also become more and more successful. Today, there are more than 600 pandas in captive breeding programs. That’s two times the number scientists say is needed for genetic diversity.
The panda’s fame has also helped it become better protected. People everywhere recognize the mission to save it and are willing to offer their support. As one national panda preserve puts it, “大熊猫在中国人民心中永远不会降级” (pandas will always have a place in the hearts of Chinese people).
While the panda may no longer be endangered, the fight to save it continues. As any scientist can attest to, there are still many hurdles in the way.
Given their size, adult pandas have few natural predators. And due to poaching and habitat loss, the populations of animals like wolves and snow leopards have also declined. But this decline has allowed the numbers of other animals like boars and takins (a type of large goat) to take off. These herbivores often cause more trouble for the pandas than the apex predators did in the past.
Northern Chinese boars carry diseases that can harm pandas, like swine fever and canine distemper. They also eat the young bamboo shoots that pop up each spring—food that pandas (especially pregnant mothers) rely on.
Takins use trees as scratching posts, rubbing their bodies against them to relieve itchiness. However, pandas mark trees with a waxy substance that they secrete. They then use this to communicate and find mates. Takins passing by tend to diminish this scent, and in some cases, eliminate it altogether.
Hopefulness and caution
Despite the presence of these new threats, the story of the giant panda should encourage and inspire people. It shows that it’s never too late to fight for something, even when the future looks bleak.
Through global cooperation and collective action, the fate of the giant panda and other endangered animals looks bright.