The distinctive black and white bear is considered a national treasure in China and has become a powerful symbol when it comes to species conservation. Pandas are placid and peaceful animals despite their great size and large claws. They spend the day eating bamboo and usually exist peacefully, rarely expressing aggression at each other. Their natural habitat is in the high mountain bamboo forests of Western China, that not only provide shelter for Panda populations, but are also their primary food source. While giant panda numbers are increasing, the species is still one of the rarest and most endangered bears in the world.
Local people benefit from their presence because the eco-tourism trade is supported by visitors who want to see the giant pandas in their natural habitat. But climate change, human development and people’s actions seem to diminish panda populations, consequently endangering the species.
Because of climate change, there is less land suitable for bamboo forests than ever before, and global warming is shrinking what is left. The warming temperatures threaten to kill off the bamboo forests pandas need to survive. They feed on several types of bamboo that usually bloom at different times of the year. If global warming destroys one species of bamboo, the species might be left with nothing to eat, thus increasing the risk of starvation. A solution to this problem is to plant bamboo forests in cooler areas, so pandas can be relocated when the time is right.
The rising temperatures are also dangerous for the pandas themselves because they experience heat stress at temperatures over 25 degrees Celsius (77 F). To maintain their health, they regularly climb higher in the mountains whenever the temperature increases.
As civilizations expand, buildings get constructed, and roads and railroads fragment the forests, pandas are forced to live in smaller and less livable areas. As the population in China continues to grow, pandas’ habitat gets taken over by human development. As a consequence, they have smaller areas to mate to further increase populations growth.
The pandas’ bamboo forests have been steadily encroached upon as more cities have been built, leaving them with fewer habitats to live in and less food to eat. When bamboo occasionally dies off, the pandas are not quickly able to move to other areas with plenty of food. Therefore, conservation solutions have been implemented. Corridors of forest land are being established to link the fragmented habitats where the pandas live to provide the opportunity for them to preserve their natural habitat as much as possible.
Forest reform legislation in China has historically been a significant threat to the giant panda population because, for the first time, it opened up common land to commercial interests. Farmers were given the opportunity to lease their forest rights to businesses, meaning further development and more forest logging.
Recent agricultural reforms in China have taken into account the need to preserve forests, with the goal of covering 23% or more of the land by 2020. This includes funding for giant panda habitat conservation.
The black market for illegal animals has given rise to a criminal network that trades in threatened wildlife. Pandas are illegally captured for export, for their skins and even for their meat. Professional poachers hunt wild animals with helicopters and with the aid of specialized equipment. Prices for illegal animals and their horns, skin, and other body parts are high enough to tempt people to cooperate with the poachers.
There has been a market for panda pelts and body parts in Taiwan and Japan, where they have been used in folk remedies. Several panda preserves have been established in China to protect the species, but legal measures are essential if there is any hope of stopping the illegal hunting. Between 1985 and 1991, the Chinese government went after poachers, convicting 278 people. The practice is ongoing, and the individuals who are found guilty face legal convictions.
Besides prosecuting poachers and creating protected habitats, the Chinese government also introduced captive breeding programs to increase the number of panda populations, which had shrunk to only 1,000 in the 1970’s. The giant pandas used to live in other locations like Myanmar and Vietnam, but roads and buildings have divided forests everywhere, and now their habitat has shrunk to only the Gansu, Shaanxi and Sichuan Provinces of China. According to 2014 research, there were 1,864 giant pandas alive in the wild. Therefore, in the past decade, giant panda populations have risen by 17%.
There are now more than 4 million acres of forest preserve in China devoted to the pandas. The Chinese government needs to continue to find and prosecute poachers. More intelligent architecture planning can halt the fragmentation of panda habitat by farmland and cities. China is taking steps to prevent the decline of forests that protect the pandas and other endangered species.