Pandas Bounce Back in Spite of Their Critics

Protecting the cuddly bear is expensive, but worth it.

Olivia Harris / Reuters

Few animals have become as synonymous with wildlife conservation as the giant panda. Its distinctive black and white body graces the logo of the World Wide Fund for Nature, and whenever it successfully breeds in captivity, it makes headlines and draws visitors. And now, it seems that all the attention that’s been poured into saving this adorable bear is working.

In its latest update, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has downgraded the giant panda from “endangered” to merely “vulnerable”. That’s one level down in the rankings from its Red List of Threatened Species—its master register of all things screwed and about to be screwed.

The new status doesn’t mean that the panda is safe, more that its situation isn’t as imminently dire as it was before. It’s still threatened, but it has more time before extinction comes knocking. Still, you take your victories where you can get them in conservation, and the panda’s new grade is a rare spot of good news. It suggests that all the effort poured into saving this species is paying off, and it adds to debates about whether that effort has been worth it.

To some commentators, the giant panda represents “possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half century.” Millions of dollars have poured into breeding programs despite the animal’s legendary reluctance to breed in zoos, and for what? The zoo-born individuals may be unable to survive in the wild, and there may be little wild for them to survive in. Reintroducing them, said Lu Zhi from Beijing University in 2012, was as “pointless as taking off the pants in order to fart.”

Thus have spawned endless thinkpieces arguing that the panda is an emblem of misplaced priorities, of our tendency to favor cuddly and charismatic species over those in greater need. In a world of vanishing wildlife, “Let the panda die” has become the ultimate Slate pitch.

These pieces all miss a crucial point: saving the panda isn’t really about saving the panda. It’s more about saving the panda’s world.

Benoit Tessier / Reuters

It’s a common myth that the panda is doomed because it’s an evolutionary dead-end—a lazy bear that eats a deficient diet of shoots and leaves, and sucks at sex. None of this is true. They are well-adapted for eating a plentiful source of food—bamboo—and in the wild, they have no problems with mating. Give them space and safety, and they’ll bounce back.

That’s exactly what China has done. Its mountainous bamboo forests were felled and fragmented to fuel the country’s rapid economic growth. In response, the government began creating nature reserves, where pandas were protected and poaching was prohibited. The first such reserve was established in 1958 but the total number has grown by half in just the last two decades. There are now 67 of them, covering 3.4 million hectares of land and protecting two-thirds of the panda population.

The government also trained reserve managers and anti-poaching patrols. It banned logging and launched a “Grain-to-Green program” to encourage farmers to plant trees. As a result, the forests rebounded. Between 2000 and 2010, they grew by around 3 million hectares per year, expanding the panda’s potential habitat by around 12 percent. And the bears have made use of these new opportunities.

Since 1974, the Chinese government has run an extensive survey of panda numbers once a decade. The latest census, carried out between 2011 and 2014, involved more than 2,000 volunteers who trekked over 4 million hectares, spotting pandas, scooping dung, and collecting bamboo fragments. Their efforts led to a final estimate of 2,060 wild pandas, half of which are mature adults.

That sounds low, but when compared to previous surveys, it suggests that the population is no longer declining. If anything, “it is widely believed that the population has stabilized and has begun to increase in many parts of the range,” says the IUCN. Hence the reclassification from endangered to vulnerable. Captive breeding programs and celebrity zoo animals didn’t save the panda; China’s policies did (although arguably the former helped the latter, given that foreign zoos with pandas essentially rent the animals from the Chinese government at $1 million a year.)

A rising tide raises all boats, and so actions that have saved the panda’s home have also benefited its neighbors. A recent study by Binbin Li and Stuart Pimm showed that panda reserves also overlap with the ranges for 96 species of mammal, bird, and amphibian that are found nowhere else in the world. From the Ningshan alpine toad to the Gansu hamster, a large menagerie of endemic animals shelters under the umbrella of the giant panda.

“This overlap means that directing resources to almost any panda distribution area or restoration of forest to connect habitat fragments could lead to the protection of the richest forests for endemics,” wrote Li and Pimm. Again, saving the panda isn’t just about saving the panda.

But there is no room for complacency. The existing giant panda nature reserves are extensive in space, but are poorly connected due to mountains, rivers, roads, forest clearings, and human towns. These barriers have fragmented the panda population into 33 isolated clusters, only six of which have more than a hundred animals. These precarious panda pockets are vulnerable to natural disasters, disease, and more. They need to be connected if their residents are to survive.

Making matters worse, the IUCN predicts that climate change will eliminate a third of the panda’s forests over the next 80 years, potentially reversing the gains of the last two decades.

“That the giant panda still exists in the wild is due to the Chinese government’s commitment and visionary policies,” wrote biologist Fuwen Wei  in 2015. But “against the backdrop of shifting threats and conservation opportunities, more of the same is not likely to carry panda conservation much further forward.”