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New Panda Count Brings Cheers And Debate

A new panda census from the Chinese government has the World Wildlife Fund celebrating, while some experts even wonder if the bears are no longer “endangered.”

By Vicki Croke

Wolong Nature Reserve Sichuan Panda

The World Wildlife Fund considers the latest panda numbers “a victory for conservation.” Above, a 7-month old panda cub in the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan, China. Photo by Sheila Lau.

The tabulations of the latest panda census are in and the news is good: in the past ten years, the population of wild giant pandas has increased, and the geographical reach of the species has expanded, according the Chinese government.

The inventory of the endangered bears is up by 268 individuals, from 1,596 to 1,864—a nearly 17 percent rise— and a significant one for these slow-breeding animals. (And this doesn’t even take into account the hundreds of pandas in captivity in China and around the world, whose population has also increased.)

When I was last visiting panda breeding centers, including Wolong, in Sichuan Province in 2002, the numbers from the last census were in the process of being tallied, and there was excitement then about the progress being made.


Mother and baby wild giant pandas roaming through the Sichuan Anzihe Nature Reserve, captured on a WWF camera trap.

About once a decade since the 1970s, when the population was estimated at 1,100, the Chinese government has conducted a survey of the wild giant panda population. The latest one, according to the World Wildlife Fund, gives reason to cheer.

“The rise in the population of wild giant pandas is a victory for conservation and definitely one to celebrate,” said Ginette Hemley, Senior Vice President of Wildlife Conservation, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in a statement.

But some conservationists are questioning the study and whether its numbers can be compared to the last census. In an article by Jane Qiu in the journal Nature, respected researchers debate the methodology of the study, and ask whether the old census can even be compared to the new one, which, among other things, covers an area that is about 72 percent larger.


Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund.

But there is good news for panda lovers even in some of the criticism of the study. The Nature article quotes a researcher in Beijing who seems to be saying that the panda numbers could actually be even higher than reported. The anonymous source says, “It’s a fine balancing act, so officials can claim the credit for rising panda populations but the number is not too high to diminish conservation funds.”

In fact, the numbers might be so good, according to Nature, that “the argument is bound to re-ignite the debate over whether the iconic bear should still be categorized as an endangered species.”

The census, which took about three years to complete and was conducted by China’s State Forestry Administration, did more than count pandas, it took a snapshot of where pandas are living.

Chengdu Panda Base cubs

Panda cubs born in captivity in 2012 in Chengdu, China. Courtesy of Chengdu Panda Base.

According to WWF, 1,246, or about 67 percent of wild giant pandas live within protected nature reserves. And there are more of those reserves today than there were during the last survey–67 panda nature reserves, an increase of 27 since the last survey.

Pandas have managed to expand their turf by nearly 12 percent since 2003, to about 6,370,000 acres.

As for threats facing the pandas, there is mixed news. While the survey, officially called the Fourth National Giant Panda Survey, identified the reduction of some old problems, like poaching, it recorded the rise of some new ones.

Despite a positive trend in the number of wild giant pandas, the species still faces challenges. 46% of panda habitat and 33.2% of the population live outside of protected nature reserves. Habitat fragmentation – the separation of wildlife populations by physical barriers – is increasingly noticeable with about 12% individuals facing higher risks to their survival.


Though there appears to be a decline in traditional threats to pandas such as poaching, large-scale infrastructure projects like mining, hydro-power, and supporting roads and railroads are becoming more severe and were referenced in the survey for the first time.

In “The Lady and the Panda,” I wrote about socialite-turned-adventurer Ruth Harkness who, in 1936, brought the first live giant panda back to the United States. She quickly learned something that would take our conservation movement decades to catch up with—that giant pandas belong in the wild.

Vicki with a panda

Vicki Croke visiting a young panda at Wolong in 2002. Photo: Jolly Young King and Robin Perkins Ugurlu.

Harkness would eventually, at great personal sacrifice, release a zoo-bound young wild-caught panda named Su-Sen back into the mountains of the Chinese-Tibetan border. I can’t help but wonder, as I do whenever we talk about panda conservation, if any of Su-Sen’s descendants are among those counted in this latest survey.

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