Black and white and bred all over: why there is good news about giant pandas

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The giant panda, the icon of endangered animal species the world over, may be doing much better than previously thought.

A study has provided new evidence that there may be nearly twice as many of the black-and-white bears munching their way through the remote bamboo forests of China as scientists have previously calculated.

DNA fingerprinting, using panda droppings, has made it possible for the first time to conduct a much more accurate census of panda numbers, indicating there may be as many as 3,000 animals in the wild. The last census, in 1998, put the population at less than 1,600.

Even with the figure of 3,000, the charismatic and elusive animal, entirely dependent on bamboo, is still extremely rare and highly endangered - characteristics that led the World Wildlife Fund to choose it as the WWF symbol when the international conservation organisation was formed in 1961.

But the new population estimate is immensely cheering for zoologists and conservationists.

It is revealed in a paper in the journal Current Biology, detailing research by a joint team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the School of Biosciences at the University of Cardiff.

The team, led by Professor Michael Bruford from Cardiff and Professor Fuwen Wei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Zoology, worked in the Wangland Nature Reserve in western China, which in the previous panda survey eight years ago was thought to harbour a population of 27 animals.

That figure was arrived at by a simple traditional method of analysing panda droppings and estimating, from the size of the pieces of bamboo bitten off, how old a given individual was - and on that basis, working out a general population number.

The new survey analysed the panda DNA in the droppings directly, and found there were at least 66 individuals in the reserve. Normal population expansion could not explain the difference between the two surveys, the paper says - so the earlier one must have been a severe underestimate.

The paper goes on: "If similar disparities between traditional and molecular census estimates are found for the other key giant panda reserves ... it seems likely that many more individuals are extant in the wild than estimated in the third nationalsurvey (1,596 in total), which itself showed a substantial increase compared to the second survey.

The paper adds: "Our molecular census estimate for Wangland nature reserve is more than double that of the third survey, leading to the possibility that there may be as many as 2,500 to 3,000 giant pandas in the wild."

Professor Bruford said yesterday: "The old census method was good but clearly inaccurate. These new findings indicate that the species has a much better chance of long-term viability, although we must not become complacent, since the population size is still perilously low.

"We still may be only talking about a few thousand individuals ... These guys are not common. If there were only 3,000 humans in the world, we would be pretty alarmed."

For a long time the precise taxonomic classification of the panda was uncertain, as both the giant panda and the distantly related red panda share characteristics of both bears and racoons. However, genetic testing has revealed giant pandas are true bears and part of the Ursidae family..

The WWF warmly welcomed the positive news about its iconic symbol last night. "It's potentially fantastic news," said Dr Mark Wright, science adviser to WWF-UK.