How a surprising new threat is putting giant pandas at risk

Free-range animal grazing is encroaching on giant panda habitats in China.

How a surprising new threat is putting giant pandas at risk
October 17, 2017

Giant pandas, the symbol of wildlife conservation and endangered species, have been making a comeback lately. While as of 2015 there are still fewer than 2,000 giant pandas living in the wild, their population has increased by more than 15 percent since 2003 and they are no longer technically endangered.

Baby Panda That recovery is remarkably quick for an animal that lives in a very specific habitat, eats extremely specific food and generally only produces one cub every 2-3 years.

Despite the giant panda’s status upgrade from "endangered" to "vulnerable," the species’ comeback is in jeopardy. The culprit: farm animals.

Researchers from Duke University and Peking University in China studied the Wanglang National Nature Reserve in China, and found that free-range grazing of farm animals reduced giant panda habitat by almost a third in that area over a 15-year span

Panda Habitat

The study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, follows data on rural Chinese farmers and their herds, as well as signs of pandas and the condition of the forest over time. Lead author of the study Binbin Li says the trouble facing the pandas comes down to food.

Pandas live on an almost exclusive diet of bamboo, and in the mountainous regions of China that giant pandas call home, bamboo—nutritionally sparse as it is—is just about the only food available.

Because bamboo is so poor in calories and other nutrition that giant pandas need to eat about 30 pounds of it per day—although the pandas’ gut bacteria can share in the blame there—once farm animals start roaming the same ground, eating the same bamboo, the bamboo cannot grow quickly enough to satisfy the prodigious appetite of all those animals.

Giant Panda

The researchers found that there is currently nine times as much livestock living in the Wanglang Reserve as there was 15 years ago. Those animals, especially horses, according to Li, are putting tremendous strain on the bamboo, especially during the slow growing winter season.

Human interference in an animals’ habitat is nothing new: hunting and population loss nearly drove American bison into extinction, while roads and fences make life difficult for wide-roaming cheetahs. Even farming is not a new source of interference, as wide swathes of Central and South American rainforest have been cleared for crop and grazing land.

What is unique about the panda situation is that the free-range animals in Wanglang are there as a response to environmental concerns. The Chinese government banned logging in the region and required many farms built on the steep mountain slopes near the reserve to be reverted back to forest land, in an attempt to protect giant pandas and other species native to the reserve.

Chinese farmers took up raising animals and letting them graze in the reserve as a legal way to adapt to new laws and make a living. While the researchers and the Chinese government try to convince farmers to cut back, it is difficult to turn down a lucrative career that can help you provide for your family.

The trick, the researchers say, is promoting income streams like forest stewardship and tourism, while keeping animal grazing and other practices at a sustainable level that won’t interfere with the recovering panda population and and allowing one of the greatest wildlife conservations stories to keep going.

—Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.

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