An article caught my eye a couple of days ago stating two quite interesting things. Firstly the Chinese population after census in 2010 has reached an astonishing 1.34 billion people, and secondly (and a little less of a bomb shell) the Chinese are now embarking on a once-every-10-year census of the Giant Panda population.
Conservation is a subject I hold close to my heart. I have had an active part in conservation since I can remember; whether it is at home in the Lake District or planting trees in the heart of the Borneo rainforest. I have little doubt in my mind that it will have some dictation over my future. Something else that is no stranger to conservation, and is in fact often used as a symbol for conservation itself, is the Giant Panda.
The Giant Panda is an endangered mammal found in Central Western and South Western China, distinctive for its black and white patterning. The vast majority of the Giant Panda’s diet is bamboo, but they sometimes eat small birds and rodents. Unfortunately for the Pandas their carnivorous digestive system means they get very little nutrition from bamboo, this means raising their offspring on milk leaves little nutrition for themselves. This lack of nutrients majorly limits their behaviour, such as limited social interactions and limiting energy expenditure from locomoting.
Another unfortunate issue facing the Giant Panda is not the loss of habitat due to deforestation as the Chinese population expands, but the subsequent migration to new habitats at higher altitude. At these higher altitudes very few bamboo species are able to grow. Therefore the Pandas have two options: live on the limited bamboo at higher altitudes, or travel down the mountain daily where bamboo is plentiful, but energetically expensive to obtain.
As well as loss of habitat and a nutrient poor food source the Giant Panda also has a very low birth rate. All these reasons meant it was obvious the Giant Panda populations needed to be monitored and conserved. I think it would be fair to say that the techniques used, particularly in early Panda conservation were quite “hit and miss”. It was first thought that caging was the only answer, which resulted in the Pandas suffering terrible conditions and further reducing reproduction rates. However a ruling in the late 90’s meant conservation could occur in the wild and population numbers began to increase.
To go about estimating Panda populations, trackers collect droppings and use them for DNA analysis to accurately identify the number of Pandas in an area. By identifying individual Pandas by their DNA, any pseudo replications can be removed from the sample to give an accurate estimate. 10 years ago population numbers of wild Giant Pandas were estimated at 1596 and the census is hoped to show a further increase after the preliminary survey ending this month.
It seems the Giant Panda is a victim of unfortunate circumstances; decreasing habitat, nutrient poor food, and sharing a country with the highest human population in the world. The cynical amongst us may even suggest that the Giant Panda is a lost cause. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do believe it is going to take a huge effort to get population numbers up to a level whereby they will no longer be threatened. Crucially, I believe effort will not be the deciding factor, but instead space. I fear that once again we are faced with a species that is on the brink of extinction because of ever expanding human populations. As a result this iconic species may well have ever more challenging times ahead.
Original Article – http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/06/28/501364/main20075065.shtml
Article claiming some experts are calling for less care for Pandas – http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2011-06/16/c_13933891.htm