Over the past decade or so, giant panda populations have grown significantly, with a 2015 census placing the total number of mature wild bears at 1,864—up from a low of some 1,200 during the 1980s. The numbers are so promising, in fact, that in 2016, the IUCN Red List downgraded pandas’ threat level from “endangered” to “vulnerable.”
But as Jennifer S. Holland writes for National Geographic, the iconic creatures aren’t out of the woods just yet. Thanks to logging, construction, agriculture and natural disasters, China’s pandas have a limited range of habitable land. Today, the animals live in around 30 groups scattered across six mountain ranges in western China, separated from their peers by degraded land and ongoing human activity.
A proposed park measuring three times the size of Yellowstone aims to connect China’s fragmented panda populations, uniting nearly 70 extant nature reserves and protected areas in one 10,476-square mile umbrella space. According to the Telegraph’s Neil Connor, China first unveiled plans for the park, which is set to encompass territory in the neighboring provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi, in 2017. Funding followed in March 2018, when the state-owned Bank of China pledged 10 billion yuan, or $1.5 billion USD, to the project.
The Giant Panda National Park’s principal purpose will be ensuring the species’ long-term survival by diversifying the gene pool. Female pandas are only fertile for a day or two each year, Fast Company’s Adele Peters reports, and give birth at most once every two years. Given the fragmented nature of China’s wild panda populations, which can comprise as few as 10 bears, inbreeding poses an increasingly serious threat.
“A small population means there’s a high possibility for pandas to inbreed and mate with [other giant pandas with] similar genes,” Fan Zhiyong, a senior supervisor at the World Wildlife Fund’s Beijing office, told Alice Yan of South China Morning Post in 2017. “It’s very bad for the panda’s reproduction and will lift the risk of their extinction.”
By placing the country’s scattered populations under the purview of one national administrative bureau, the park will enable pandas to better find mates and enrich their species’ genetic diversity. Under the previous system, it was difficult for pandas to roam this freely, as they could cross a provincial boundary and blur the lines between various administrations’ jurisdiction.
Another concern, according to Luo Peng of the Chengdu Institute of Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was the fact that multiple local governments, each with their own priorities, were tasked with managing pandas’ territory. As Peng explains to National Geographic’s Holland, “Coordination was not always effective.”
In addition to connecting panda populations, the park will ensure the animals have a steady supply of bamboo. Climate change is drastically shifting the regions in which the plant can grow, Fast Company’s Peters writes, with more than a third of China’s panda habitats poised to become too hot to support bamboo over the next 80 years. To circumvent this issue, park officials are planning on creating passageways and tunnels that allow pandas to easily travel to bamboo-rich areas.
Speaking with Holland, panda expert Marc Brody says the proposed park looks promising on paper but fails to “directly resolve habitat fragmentation.” To fully maximize the space’s potential, Brody adds, China must restore degraded lands, enforce stronger land-use restrictions and build an array of “wildlife corridors” capable of easily transporting pandas from one area to another.
Pandas aren’t the only living creatures whose lives will change with the opening of the Giant Panda National Park: According to China Daily's Yang Wanli, the space will protect more than 8,000 kinds of wildlife, including snub-nosed monkeys and takins. Looking to the park’s human impact, Peters reports that some 170,000 people living within the proposed territory will be forced to relocate or adapt to new restrictions. Others will benefit from the burgeoning ecotourism industry associated with the park’s creation.
The park, initially scheduled to open in 2020 (Holland notes that the government’s final plan will likely be finalized in fall 2019, but she does not pinpoint a specific opening date), “takes the long view,” says Bob Tansey, China policy advisor for the Nature Conservancy.
“Generally, pandas are doing well,” Tansey tells National Geographic. “But what will they need in the future? Connectivity.”