Giant panda makes a stunning comeback as new study in China marks 40% rise in numbers

The giant panda is in better shape than anyone realised, the most thorough census yet of the species has indicated.

The giant panda is in better shape than anyone realised, the most thorough census yet of the species has indicated.

In the bamboo forests of southern China there are nearly 1,600 individuals, an increase of more than 40 per cent on estimates from the past 30 years.

The previous panda survey, in the 1980s, estimated about 1,100 animals in the wild, about the same population that was estimated in the first survey of the giant panda in the 1970s.

The latest census was more extensive and thorough, said the global environment network WWF, formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Stuart Chapman, head of species for WWF-UK, said the apparent increase in panda numbers is probably due to a combination of better counting methods and a genuine increase in the wild population.

"We have been further, higher and deeper into panda habitat than ever before, finding panda populations that were not known to science," Mr Chapman said.

"Hearing about the findings was like all my Christmases rolled into one. We've got a second chance [to save the panda] and you don't often get a second chance in conservation."

Unlike previous surveys, which extrapolated panda numbers from data gathered from selected parts of the animal's habitat, the present census tried to count every single animal through a combination of arduous fieldwork and sophisticated satellite-positioning.

Conservationists from China's State Forestry Administration and the WWF made the census over four years, compiling and checking the findings of more than 170 people working in 54 counties of the provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Ganzu, a total area of 8,900 square miles.

The survey identified several threats to the long-term survival of the panda, such as deforestation and poaching, as well as monitoring poverty among the people living within the pandas' range.

James Harkness, of the WWF in China, said the country has 40 panda reserves where the species is protected against human interference, compared with the 13 reserves of two decades ago.

"Because of improved census methods, we have a more accurate count of how many there are in the wild, where they are, and the state of the habitat on which they depend," Mr Harkness said. "The results of the survey will be used to help ensure that over the next few years we make even greater strides to protect this rare and precious animal."

Mr Chapman said one of the greatest threats to giant pandas is accidental poaching. People set traps for other animals, such as the black bear, for food or Chinese remedies, but in the process often snare pandas by mistake. Conservation zones established to protect the panda help to prevent both logging and poaching, Mr Chapman said. WWF and the Chinese authorities have also tried to link these zones by forested "corridors" which allow one isolated panda population to interbreed with another.

In 2001, Chinese scientists published a study suggesting that one of the most famous conservation zones, the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan province, may not be beneficial to pandas. The study found that panda numbers had plummeted in the reserve from 145 in 1974 to just 72 in 1986, essentially because of habitat fragmentation and human activities that were encouraged within the reserve, such as eco-tourism.

Mr Chapman said the study may have been seriously flawed because it did not take into account the fact that all surrounding regions outside Wolong had been denuded of trees, which would almost certainly have happened to the reserve itself if it had not been given protected status. The WWF said that the best way of protecting the remaining pandas in the wild is to extend the number of conservation zones rather than reduce them.

BLACK AND WHITE FACTS

Adults weigh between 85kg and 125kg (187lbs to 275lbs) and eat a diet almost exclusively of bamboo shoots and leaves.

They are related to bears and their digestive system is inefficient at breaking down vegetation, which is why they have to eat up to 40kg of bamboo each day.

Pandas stand on their heads and forelegs to place scent high up on tree trunks, which is the principal way of communicating with their potential mates.

The panda's opposable "thumb" is legendary, being made from an enlarged wrist-bone which serves to grasp bamboo plants.

The docile animals became embroiled in international diplomacy in the 1960s when they were exchanged as gifts between China and the West.

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