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Pandas Are Probably Still Screwed, Sorry

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Last year brought some rare good conservation news: the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the folks who determine which species are endangered and which aren’t, bumped pandas from endangered to vulnerable. That’s a sign that conservation efforts have begun to reverse the effects of the human activity that wiped out the original bamboo-filled panda habitats in the first place. It also makes sense I guess, because science journalists spent all of last year talking about pandas screwing.

But you know what they say, no good deed goes unpunished. Or rather, no good panda goes un-screwed.


A new paper used remote sensing data from the Chinese government to come to an upsetting but wholly unsurprising conclusion: The giant panda is probably still screwed. Sure, panda populations have increased between recent national surveys. But their habitat is looking worse than it was in the recent past.


“Newly obtained, detailed GIS and remotely sensed data applied consistently over the last four decades show that panda habitat covered less area and was more fragmented in 2013 than in 1988 when the species was listed as endangered,” the authors write in the new study, published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The authors’ model includes data on “elevation, slope and forest cover” taken remotely (aka via planes and satellites) across all of the places pandas live. Overall, panda habitats have decreased by 1.7% between 1988 to 2013, and the average size of each individual patch of habitat has decreased by 13.3%. In other words, there is a lot more fragmentation—our bad human behavior has broken the bamboo patches into smaller sections.

The declining habitat is due to a complex mix of factors, not all of them human-caused. Of course there’s the ever-present threat of climate change, and fragmentation via increased road paving (pandas don’t cross the street). But the Wenchuan earthquake, a strong quake that struck China in 2008 and reportedly killed almost 90,000 people, also played a role. The authors’ model posits this event alone accounted for around 70% of the habitat lost between 2001 and 2013.

Of course, this research is all just based on modeling, and panda populations do seem to be increasing despite the trend of declining habitat. I’ve passed the paper along to the IUCN for comment. But regardless, conservation is a constant effort. The authors suggest that there should be red lines specifically drawn that forbid further disturbances from humans, and forests should be managed by the state so they aren’t logged. They also suggest building corridors to connect fractured habitats (maybe something like this?), building tunnels instead of roads, and establishing new panda national parks.


Sorry, pandas, but it looks like you’re just going to have to cross your paws and hope the dumb humans continue Trying Their Best.

[Nature Ecology & Evolution]

Update 9/28/17 5:30PM: Dr Ron Swaisgood, Chair of the IUCN’s Giant Panda Expert Team, and Dave Garshelis, co-chair of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group, told Gizmodo that they felt the study was a “good contribution to panda conservation,” but does not undermine the IUCN’s determination that pandas should now be listed as vulnerable in a comment. They continued:

The downlisting of the panda confirms that conservation effort can be rewarded with improved status for the giant panda. It does not mean that panda conservation is now a completed process. The IUCN account specifically recognizes emerging threats and encourages conservation efforts to continue, something Xu and colleagues also recommend. The panda is still at risk of extinction, but its situation is less dire than it was two decades ago. Kudos to the Chinese government and other conservationists that have helped put the panda on the path to recovery.