The giant panda is now officially no longer an endangered species, with officials announcing over the weekend that it’s been downgraded from "Endangered" to "Vulnerable", following a 17 percent increase in population over the past 10 years.
It’s an incredible change of fate for a species that was in such dire straits in 2009 that experts were predicting it could become extinct within three generations. Now there are 67 fiercely guarded panda reserves in China, which protect nearly two-thirds of the global population.
"Evidence from a series of range-wide national surveys indicate that the previous population decline has been arrested, and the population has started to increase," the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) updated Red List report states.
"The improved status confirms that the Chinese government's efforts to conserve this species are effective."
The IUCN reports that in the decade up to 2014, the global giant panda population has increased by 17 percent, and it’s now estimated that there are some 1,864 adults in the wild in China. The estimated number of cubs brings the total to around 2,060.
How did a species that at least one expert said we should give up on just seven years ago make such a promising rebound?
The IUCN cites forest protection and reforestation measures in China as having significantly increased forest cover and the amount of available habitat for the species, allowing them to establish new, more viable populations throughout the countries’ unique bamboo forests.
"The recovery of the panda shows that when science, political will, and engagement of local communities come together, we can save wildlife and also improve biodiversity," Marco Lambertini, WWF Director General, said in a press statement.
"When push comes to shove, the Chinese have done a really good job with pandas," John Robinson, a primatologist and chief conservation officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told the AFP.
"So few species are actually downlisted, it really is a reflection of the success of conservation."
Let’s just bask in the awesomeness of all of this for a second, because downgrading the endangered status of any species like the giant panda is an incredible feat.
One of the biggest challenges in getting panda numbers back up is the fact that they are poor breeders in captivity, and often lose interest in pairing with other pandas in zoos.
They’re also voracious eaters.
Unlike cows, which have a four-chambered stomach and a long colon to absorb nutrients from hard-to-digest grass, panda stomachs have only one chamber and a short colon. This means they have to keep eating for close to 14 hours a day, and end up consuming up to 12.5 kilograms (27.5 pounds) of bamboo daily, while only digesting around 17 percent of it.
When you think about every adult panda on Earth needing 12.5 kg of bamboo every single day, you realise just how important their habitat is for them.
And that's where the bad news comes in. While the ICUN says the increase in panda populations is definitely something to celebrate, we need to prepare for the fact that it's probably not going to last.
"Although the population is currently increasing, climate change is predicted to eliminate more than 35 percent of the Panda's bamboo habitat in the next 80 years, and thus the Panda population is projected to decline," the report reads.
"The threat of declining bamboo availability due to climate change could, in the near future, reverse the gains made during the last two decades."
It remains to be seen if simply ramping up current conservation efforts will be enough to mitigate the habitat decline that's to come, but researchers are urging everyone not to get complacent now that the population has seen an increase.
As Lo Sze Ping, CEO of WWF China points out: "Everyone should celebrate this achievement, but pandas remain scattered and vulnerable, and much of their habitat is threatened by poorly-planned infrastructure projects. And remember: there are still only 1,864 left in the wild."
Source: Science Alert