The Giant Panda – least we forget

The Giant Panda – least we forget

What is happening to the giant panda? For my entire life the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) has been on the endangered species list. I remember one of my teachers at high school mentioning that the giant panda was no longer endangered and that the population had increased. I also remember not believing him and having my doubts. Conservation regarding the Giant Panda has been overshadowed around the world with regards to climate change, plastic pollution, the Amazon forest on fire or overfishing. The Giant Panda was the iconic animal which was probably the pioneer of modern conservation efforts. see this link for other endangered species.

The Giant Panda
These animals are great climbers.

The giant panda is endemic to China. Its diet is made up almost exclusively of bamboo, but it retains a short carnivoran alimentary tract and, consequently, has very low digestive productivity. The animal has some distinct adaptations for ingesting bamboo, a fibre-rich food.  Therefore, the giant panda must feed for a large part of each day and consume large quantities of food relative to its body mass. Giant pandas have a promiscuous mating system; males compete for access to more than one adult female. The mating season is principally from mid-March to mid-May. Females without young may also come into heat in autumn and very occasionally in winter. During mating, pandas leave their primarily solitary existence and become more social. Females communicate receptivity with increased scent marking and vocalisations, including moans, bleats, and barks. Males, especially dominant ones that are ready to mate, also vocalise with barks and roars. They often attract other males, leading to a competitive situation. Females give birth to one or two young, but very rarely attempt to raise more than one.

The Giant Panda
Bamboo is clearly the staple diet of giant pandas

The original symbol of nature conservation

Twenty years ago, conservationists were cynical about the prospects of the giant panda. What they did not foresee was China’s rapid economic rise and concerted effort to apply science, management, and policy to arrest the decline of a species referred to as “China’s national treasure”.  Although the number of species has fallen worldwide due to various threats, there has been an increase in the abundance of China’s giant panda, which serves as the biodiversity flagship of the WWF logo. Wild animal protection legislation is significant in China, and the giant panda is the characteristic species of this effort. Given that the giant panda is the flagship species, China has gradually formulated a series of laws and regulations with legal mandates to protect this species, so that giant panda management is enforced by law. The iconic giant panda is a globally adopted symbol of the plight of endangered species.

The Giant Panda
Giant pandas eat for many hours of the day to extract the fibre.

Threats to the Giant Panda

Giant Panda conservation is still under pressure, mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation, which dramatically increases the risk of small and isolated panda populations becoming extinct. The Chinese government has implemented a new round of collective forest reforms, in which 24% of forest ownership was transferred to residents within the habitat of the giant panda in Sichuan Province. However, as long as the standard of compensation for ecological conservation is lower than the expected benefit from forest exploitation, residents will be inclined toward exploitative operations involving tree cutting and habitat loss.

The structure of protected areas (PAs) and their deficient management system limit the development of PAs for the giant panda; PAs are also negatively influenced by increased local growth and urbanisation driven by a growing economy. Local sources of disturbance include bamboo logging, firewood gathering, hunting, cultivation, herb collection, and grazing, among others. However, intense macroeconomic pressures, like resource consumption in order to supply social and economic development, the impacts of climate change, habitat destruction through mining, agricultural land expansion, tourism and leisure, road construction and traffic, and the emission of greenhouse gases by heavy industry persist in giant panda habitats and have contributed for increasing habitat disturbance. 

Macro-scale pressures pose more significant threats to the protection of species and habitats, with their effects being noticed more slowly, making them hard to control. Human activities further exacerbate the degree of habitat fragmentation, causing significant interference on the survival, reproduction, and development of giant panda. Currently, the greatest threat to giant panda conservation is economical and social developments, which generate a variety of demands for natural resources, including the direct exploitation of protected species and the indirect exploitation of resources in habitats used by the giant panda. Such exploitation tends to destroy the ecosystem and threaten the protection of species. Currently, there is considerable exploitation and utilisation of giant panda habitat due to economic growth.

The Giant Panda
Panda cubs on man made structure.

Bamboo forests in the current panda habitats would contract rapidly in the 21st century with ongoing climate change. Giant pandas historically lived in warmer regions at lower elevations and consumed many other species of bamboo that the giant pandas no longer feed on because they have moved to higher elevations to avoid human stresses. The roles of inbreeding and inbreeding avoidance in endangered species.

Giant pandas may have a satisfactory mechanism for dealing with the risk of inbreeding at present through sex-biased natal dispersal, the level of inbreeding documented is higher than expected for a solitary mammal and thus warrants concern for potential inbreeding depression. Particularly concerning are that the results come from two of the largest and most dense giant panda populations, this suggests that many giant pandas currently face higher risk of inbreeding.

The Giant Panda
Giant Pandas usually take care of one cub.

Conservation Efforts

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently changed the status of the giant panda from “endangered” to the less threatened “vulnerable”1. The justification was the observed increase in the adult population from the second national survey (1985–1988) to the fourth survey (2011– 2014) based on the slow recovery of wild giant panda populations due to China’s conservation efforts, which include habitat restoration and a reduction in poaching. These professionals believe that this species should still have “endangered” status due to the fragmentation of its habitat, low connectivity between populations, and current protection plans were once widely distributed across about one-quarter of China, but its current distributions are constrained to about 1% of the historical distributional range in China. The recent increase in the number of giant pandas has been attributed to government efforts focusing on active biodiversity conservation, establishing nature reserves, and increasing capital investment resulting in a reduction in habitat disturbance.

In addition to this uneven geographic coverage, there is an uneven coverage for species conservation. From 2007 to 2014, the number of nature reserves targeted mainly at giant pandas doubled from 34 to 67. They now cover 33,600 km² of the 450,055 km² of protected areas that lie outside the four less crowded provinces. Charismatic and threatened species, especially giant pandas, have drawn disproportionately from other conservation resources. Around 48 pandas are loaned to other countries with an annual fee about $1 million per pair to support their conservation in China.

The Giant Panda
Conservationist making sure not to imprint on panda cubs buy wearing panda costumes.

China is exceptionally diverse. It holds many types of ecosystem and harbours 15%of the world’s vertebrate species and 12% of all plant species. Although China is confronting serious environmental problems during its rapid social and economic development, it has emphasised conservation of biodiversity in recent years. It has protected high elevation and sparsely vegetated lands disproportionately. By 2010, China had dedicated 18% of its territory to conservation in more than 8000 protected areas. These include nature reserves, forest parks, scenic areas, and national parks. The fact that the giant panda still exists in the wild is due to the Chinese government’s commitment and visionary policies and management actions to arrest the panda’s decline.

Strict forest protection measures and an active reforestation program have established China as one of the few countries with increasing forest cover. An optimistic view of the panda’s conservation status suggests the panda population is more extensive than once believed, that the amount of habitat is expanding, and that the community is increasing (up 17% in the past decade). From a social, environmental, resource management perspective, it makes sense that forests should contribute to integrated conservation strategies that address climate change as well as conservation objectives in protected areas. The future of giant panda conservation should be bright, and there is good reason for hope. As a global conservation icon and ample resources and political will behind its preservation, the giant panda makes an excellent test case for endangered species recovery. Road construction is a major factor driving habitat loss and fragmentation.

The Chinese government recognises that fragmentation is the most immediate and essential remaining threat and scientists have begun to test the efficacy of habitat corridors. For areas where corridors cannot be established shortly, active intervention such as translocation will be required to maintain the genetic viability of small, isolated populations. China has also created a sizeable successful conservation breeding program, often with the help of foreign zoos and NGOs, and has a nascent program for releasing giant pandas into areas in need of genetic rescue and population supplementation. The fourth giant panda survey in China showed that, by the end of 2013, the number of wild pandas reached 1864, representing an increase of 16.8% from the end of 2001.

Worker giving giant panda some water at a rehabilitation centre.


The IUCN adjustment of the endangerment level of giant pandas from “endangered” to “vulnerable” should address future issues. The decadal increase in giant panda populations and the expansion of their habitat area represent short-term changes; however, we should take into account the long-term systematic threats to giant panda populations. Today the giant panda’s outlook is much better and the species once iconic for its rarity, conservation urgency, and presumed evolutionary failures now have come to represent progress and even hope. Panda conservation is not a success; it is a success in the making. While reason for optimism can be found in the panda’s improved status, there is still much work to be done to address the number of current and future threats facing the giant panda. The Chinese government and global conservation community need to prepare for the most difficult phase of species conservation, as the panda will likely always be conservation-dependent and require active management and intervention indefinitely. The giant panda’s salvage is a delicate one; thus this newfound hope must be counterbalanced with renewed resolve to keep this conservation program on the path to success.


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Chapter 13 Giant Panda Conservation Action Plan.

Exceptionallylowdailyenergy expenditure in the bamboo ….

Reassessing the conservation status of the giant panda ….

Under The Panda’s Umbrella: Trickle Down Conservation ….

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