• Otávio Santiago

China declares pandas no longer endangered—but threats persist

The giant panda, China’s national animal, is a global symbol of cuteness. But the black-and-white bears have long suffered for their irresistible qualities—poached for their pelts, smuggled out of the country as cubs to the U.S. and Japan, and speculated on like a tradeable stock by zoo collectors.

By the 1980s, their numbers in the wild had fallen to just over a thousand. Extinction loomed.

But this summer, pandas also became a global symbol of conservation success. Chinese officials announced that the animals—whose wild population has almost doubled after 30 years of government-led recovery efforts—are no longer endangered.

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature had already downlisted the giant panda from endangered to vulnerable, citing a steadily increasing population and expanded habitat. But some Chinese scientists and officials rejected that assessment, saying it was premature and could undermine panda protection efforts.

Much has been achieved since 2016. China has designated a new Giant Panda National Park, which covers 70 percent of the animals’ existing habitat, mainly in Sichuan Province. And the number of pandas in captive-breeding programs around the world has nearly doubled, to 633. That’s more than twice as many pandas scientists say are needed to preserve genetic diversity, essential for the survival of the species.

Meanwhile, a study about the effects of climate change on bamboo, which makes up 99 percent of pandas’ diet, shows that their tolerance—and that of bamboo—to variations in temperature and rainfall is much higher than previously thought. (Read how the new panda park will be three times the size of Yellowstone.)

“In reality, today’s increase was something no one was certain would happen 20 years ago. Now, the panda is a very successful case,” says Fang Wang, a conservation biologist in the School of Life Sciences, at Fudan University, in Shanghai.

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