Conservationists got a mixed bag of news following an international group overseeing the world’s species protection initiatives meeting this weekend. On the positive side, officials decided to officially take the giant panda off of the endangered species list, citing steady successes in preserving the bears’ natural habitats. But though this is certainly a small victory, pandas are far from out of the woods when it comes to their species’ long-term survival.
For decades, the giant panda was considered one of the world’s most threatened species, thanks to the iconic bear’s rapidly shrinking habitats and rampant poaching for their black-and-white pelts. In the 1990s, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared giant pandas to be an endangered species as their wild populations dwindled. Since then, reports of wild panda populations appear to have steadily risen by 17 percent over the last 10 years, giving conservationists hope that China’s anti-poaching initiatives and expansion of protected habitats are helping bring the bears back from the brink of extinction, Maddie Stone reports for Gizmodo. Now, the pandas have been officially labeled as a “vulnerable” species rather than “endangered.”
However, while recent reports suggest that wild panda populations have risen to more than 2,000 individuals for the first time in decades, some are questioning the decision to downgrade their status. While most conservationists agree that China’s efforts in banning poaching and increasing the panda’s habitats have been paying off, the question is by how much, Christine Dell'Amore reports for National Geographic.
"It is too early to conclude that pandas are actually increasing in the wild—perhaps we are simply getting better at counting wild pandas," Marc Brody, senior advisor for conservation at China’s Wolong Nature Reserve tells Dell’Amore.
While China now has 67 panda preserves (up from 33 in 2015), many of them are small and fragmented. Because the typically solitary bears need a lot of room to roam, this limits the number of pandas each region can support to just a few dozen individuals. Meanwhile, scientists say that pandas are likely to lose nearly 35 percent of their bamboo-covered habitats over the next century due to climate change, Emanuella Grinberg reports for CNN.
“You celebrate the small victories, but you keep track of the war,” Conservation International’s senior scientist M. Sanjayan tells Dell’Amore.
Things might be tentatively looking up for the giant panda, but the future of our great ape relatives has gotten more dire. According to a report at the same IUCN meeting, four of the six species of great apes are now facing greater danger of extinction than ever before. In particular, the eastern lowland gorilla – the largest primate to walk the earth – is critically endangered, having seen its worldwide population decline 70 percent since the 1990s. Three other species of great ape (the western gorilla, Bornean orangutan and Sumatra orangutan) are also now considered critically endangered, Grinberg reports, all thanks to hunting and loss of habitat to human development.
“We are the only one species of great ape that is not threatened with extinction,” Carlo Rondinini, who runs the IUCN’s Global Mammal Assessment Program, tells Dell’Amore.
While some conservationists may be cautiously optimistic about the giant panda’s current conservation status, more time is needed to determine if they can rally enough support for the great apes to make a difference.