Giant pandas are the world’s most famous endangered animals. Their survival is threatened mostly by loss of habitat, and this is related to economic and population growth in China. One reason the panda is so vulnerable is that bamboo dies off periodically after blooming and pandas so dislike people that they would starve rather than cross an inhabited area to find a fresh source of food.
The slow reproductive rate of pandas makes reviving their population difficult. Another problem is inbreeding. Inbreeding can make it difficult for pandas to reproduce and makes them vulnerable to disease. Genetic studies though have shown that inbreeding is not a problem.
Existing pandas are doing pretty well. One area studied by Chinese naturalist Pan Wenshi in the Qin Ling mountains in Shaanxi with a population of 80 pandas recorded 11 birth and 4 deaths in a seven month period.
The giant panda has been a target for poaching by locals since ancient times and by foreigners since it was introduced to the West. Starting in the 1930s, foreigners were unable to poach giant pandas in China because of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, but pandas remained a source of soft furs for the locals.
The population boom in China after 1949 created stress on the pandas’ habitat, and the subsequent famines led to the increased hunting of wildlife, including pandas. During the Cultural Revolution, all studies and conservation activities on the pandas were stopped. After the Chinese economic reform, demand for panda skins from Hong Kong and Japan led to illegal poaching for the black market, acts generally ignored by the local officials at the time.
Though the Wolong National Nature Reserve was set up by the PRC government in 1958 to save the declining panda population, few advances in the conservation of pandas were made, owing to inexperience and insufficient knowledge of ecology.
Many believed the best way to save the pandas was to cage them. As a result, pandas were caged at any sign of decline, and suffered from terrible conditions. Because of pollution and destruction of their natural habitat, along with segregation caused by caging, reproduction of wild pandas was severely limited. In the 1990s, however, several laws (including gun control and the removal of resident humans from the reserves) helped their chances of survival. With these renewed efforts and improved conservation methods, wild pandas have started to increase in numbers in some areas, though they still are classified as a rare species.
In 2006, scientists reported the number of pandas living in the wild may have been underestimated at about 1,000. Previous population surveys had used conventional methods to estimate the size of the wild panda population, but using a new method that analyzes DNA from panda droppings, scientists believe the wild population may be as large as 3,000. Although the species is still endangered, the conservation efforts are thought to be working. In 2006, there were 40 panda reserves in China, compared to just 13 reserves two decades ago.
The giant panda is among the world’s most adored and protected rare animals, and is one of the few in the world whose natural inhabitant status was able to gain a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, located in the southwest Sichuan province and covering seven natural reserves, were inscribed onto the World Heritage List in 2006.