Bear species are classified as vulnerable
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What animal do you think of when you hear the term endangered species? If you answered panda, you are not alone.
The black and white bear native to China is a conservation symbol for many people, and has even been an emblem of the World Wildlife Fund since 1961.
In July, Chinese officials announced that giant pandas were no longer considered endangered – only vulnerable.
This is good news for the panda, but the bear species is still in danger.
China’s ranking now matches the IUCN
The announcement comes five years after the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the giant panda’s status from endangered to vulnerable.
The IUCN administers the Red List of Threatened Species, which is considered the world’s most comprehensive list of species facing extinction.
Panda Liang Liang (right) lives in a zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has three cubs. Conservation experts say it is rare for pandas in captivity to have so many cubs. Nawan Nwan (left) is her first born in 2016 (Image Source: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images) (Image Source: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)
Giant pandas were officially classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1990, when the panda numbered only 1,114 individuals.
In 2016, the population was believed to be around 1,184 individuals. That’s when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) shocked the species’ status into becoming endangered.
China disagreed with the reclassification.
At the time, Chinese officials said they feared the vulnerable situation would make people believe the pandas were still in danger, which could harm conservation efforts.
Why did China change the status of the panda to weak now?
As of January 3, there were 633 pandas in captive breeding programs around the world, according to Chinese officials. This is double the number recorded in 2016.
Breeding in captivity occurs when pandas are kept in zoos and sanctuaries while humans try to help them get more panda cubs to increase population numbers.
According to the IUCN, the latest population survey reports that the panda population is resting at around 2,060 individuals.
This new reclassification is “another sign of hope” for the pandas, Colby Lux, vice president of wildlife conservation for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
The World Wildlife Fund logo, left, is inspired by a panda named Chi-Chi, right, seen by the organization’s founders on a visit to the London Zoo. According to a WWF spokesperson, the founders chose the panda because it was a powerful conservation symbol. Image source: Gregor Fischer/DPA/AFP/ via Getty Images and William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images
Why were the giant pandas endangered in the first place?
Panda numbers began to decline in the early 20th century due to hunting and loss of habitat.
Different groups of pandas were divided and became isolated from each other because humans removed the bamboo forests where pandas live to build roads, buildings, and farms.
According to the WWF, the daily diet of pandas consists almost entirely of bamboo. Most species of bears are omnivores, which means that they eat meat and plants. Pandas’ vegetarian diet has long been thought to be an evolutionary mistake, but a study published in 2019 by a Chinese conservation biologist found that their bamboo diet is as rich in protein as that of carnivores like wolves. (Image source: Teh Eng Koon/AFP/Getty Images)
The separation made it difficult for the bears to find mates, causing a lower number of cubs being born.
In addition, the loss of bamboo forests made it difficult for pandas to find food.
Thirty years of effort
It has taken 30 years of dedicated long-term conservation efforts to get the species back on track.
These efforts include captive breeding programs, restoring the panda habitat and establishing 50 giant panda sanctuaries in China.
Many experts agree that the hard work has paid off.
Weak does not mean that pandas are completely safe
Unfortunately, although being ‘vulnerable’ is better than being ‘endangered’, the panda is still endangered.
According to the IUCN, at least 35 percent of the panda’s bamboo habitat could be lost in the next 80 years due to climate change.
In addition, many pandas still live on land that is in danger of being destroyed by deforestation.
Some experts say the Chinese government should focus more on restoring and protecting wild habitats and less on captive breeding.
Three-year-old panda Hua Yan was released into the wild in Liziping National Nature Reserve in China in 2016. Hua Yan was sent out along with another panda named Zhang Ming as part of a program to improve wild panda populations. This was the first time that two pandas had been released at the same time. (Photo Credit: Zhang Jian/Chengdu Economic Daily/VCG via Getty Images)
panda successful case
Although the panda population remains vulnerable, there is reason for optimism.
“China’s success in giant panda conservation shows what can be achieved when political will and science come together,” the WWF said in a statement on July 9.
If this kind of collaboration continues, there could be more good news on the horizon for the species.
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Top image source: Teh Eng Koon / AFP / Getty Images