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The once critically endangered giant panda has rebounded in numbers in recent years, representing one of the most successful restoration and conservation stories, however a new study has found that while many other animals in the same landscape have benefited from these conservation efforts, some have not been so lucky. 

Decades of conservation efforts to create protected habitats for the giant panda bear, native to central China, has pulled it back from the brink of extinction. However, some animals have not been as fortunate.

According to a new study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, leopards, snow leopards, wolves and Asian wild dogs have nearly disappeared from a great majority of the protected areas. The study analysed data from 73 protected areas, including 66 giant panda nature reserves, comparing previous data with a decade’s worth of camera-trap surveys.

Since the set up of panda reserves in the 1960s, all four species have been absent from a big proportion of reserves: leopards have disappeared from 81% of reserves, snow leopards from 38%, wolves from 77% and dholes from 95%. Modern figures are worrying- in the case of the Asian wild dog, only four sightings of the species has been identified among data from almost 8 000 survey stations recording more than 1.5 million camera days’ of footage.

The researchers in China have stressed how logging, poaching and disease have driven them to near extinction, which they say could result in ‘major shifts, even collapse, in ecosystems’. 

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Without the presence of leopards and wolves, deer and livestock can roam unrestrained, leading to damaged natural habitats with knock-on effects for other wildlife species, including pandas themselves. 

Conservationists previously believed that by protecting the panda’s forests, they would also inadvertently be protecting many other species roaming the same habitat. But while this has proven a successful method for some other wildlife species, such efforts do not appear to have the same positive effects for large carnivores, such as the leopard or wolf.

The team of researchers now believes that a broader, holistic approach is ideal and more appropriate in managing the ecosystem in which the panda resides, one that also ensures the safety of key species who share the same environment. 

This was “critically needed to better increase the resilience and sustainability of the ecosystems not only for giant pandas but also for other wild species,” said co-author Dr Sheng Li of Peking University in Beijing. 

The researchers pointed out numerous measures allowing for this to be achieved, including enforcement against poaching and restoring habitats for the animals that large carnivores consume.

Giant Panda Conservation Efforts

Giant pandas are prime examples of conservation success. Their population numbers in the wild are finally rebounding after years of decline, and in 2016 their status was upgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the official extinction IUCN Red List.

Regarded as an “umbrella species,” protecting the giant panda indirectly protects other wildlife within the same ecological community through forest protection which subsequently benefits the likes of plants, birds and small carnivores.

Large predators, such as leopards, snow leopards, wolves and small Asian dogs called dholes, seem to have fared badly in comparison to the conservation efforts of the panda- demonstrating how despite the evidence suggesting positive feedback for some species, this does not apply to all species. 

As the researchers have suggested, it is vital that a more holistic approach be taken to protect species across a broad spectrum and not just a select few. Doing so would ensure that the ecosystem is able to sustain itself without too much human interference. 

In the misty mountains of Sichuan Province, the arrow bamboo will act strangely, which is threatening China’s panda populations. They will turn brown and scrawny, with odd grasslike seed heads appearing amid their weak leaves. The stage is set for a botanical disaster that may wreak havoc on the habitats of China’s national animal. 

Hundreds of giant pandas in southwestern China could die from starvation because of the bamboo’s widespread cyclical regeneration next year. 

In a study published in the journal Biological Conservation, scientists from Tsinghua University, China, warn that large-scale bamboo flowering could pose a massive risk to the survival of China’s national animal.

Compelled to eat half their own body weight in bamboo each day to survive, pandas derive most of their nutrition from bamboo shoots. But they refuse to eat them when they blossom. Blooms produce seeds before dying off, and it takes 10 years for a new crop to mature. Mass flowering of bamboo tends to occur at the same time in certain regions, with the cycle running at different times in other regions.

An ideal giant panda habitat must, therefore, contain at least two bamboo species that flower at different times to allow pandas to migrate from one bamboo patch to another when the first species flower. Different bamboo species have different flowering periods varying from 20 to 60 years. 

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In many parts of the world, bamboo blossoms are dreaded as bad omen

Giant Panda Habitat Loss Facts

Habitats of giant pandas have been fragmented due to human population expansion, land-use change, and road construction. Major highways and railways crisscross southwestern China and limit movement of pandas from one forest patch to another.

Bamboo flowering and fragmentation of their habitat had already sounded the death knell for scores of giant pandas in the past. Over 250 of them starved to death following a widespread flowering episode that occurred between 1975 and 1983 in Pingwu and Nanping counties of Sichuan Province. Subsequently, the total number of giant pandas in China declined by more than 50 % from approximately 2,000 individuals in 1976 to about less than 1,000 after a decade. 

The researchers studied habitats in the Qinling and Minshan mountains, where the largest population of giant pandas is concentrated. Using existing databases and overlaying animal density, bamboo species distribution, and bamboo flowering seasons, they inferred the risk factor. 

Panda habitats in Qinling Mountains and Minshan Mountains will face the highest risk in 2020 with bamboo species in almost all areas flowering simultaneously. 

Detailed planning and adaptation strategies might mitigate the risk factor. “We should carefully consider whether giant pandas will be ready for the upcoming food shortage,” says the Tsinghua paper. “But the possible interventions are limited here.”

Pandas derive most of their nutrition from arrow bamboo 

Scientists recommend to “expand the habitat of giant pandas and establish habitat corridors between protected areas.” But warn that “if we cannot restore natural corridors, it may be necessary to translocate pandas between fragmented nature reserves or to newly-gazetted ones.”

Preparing contingency plans to rescue starving giant pandas either with supplemental feeding or bringing them into temporary captivity until the bamboo recovers is another solution.  

Natural habitat reduction resulting from climate change and human interference is a global trend with uniquely local repercussions on ecosystems and societies. The sprawling growth of urban areas devouring land can be seen from space. Mitigation policies for safeguarding local flora and fauna are being experimented. 

The impending Damocles’ sword over Giant Pandas, already a conservation-reliant vulnerable species, highlights the delicate balance societies must strike in managing wildlife reserves and protecting biodiversity.

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