As the country develops a new plan for a national panda park, it must balance conservation with tourism
○ The habitat of giant pandas in China has shrunk and become fragmented after their status was downgraded from "endangered" to "vulnerable"
○ Experts say damage to the pandas' habitat is caused by road building and logging. Tourism also has negative effects
○ China is building walkways to connect the segments, as well as setting boundaries to keep humans away
○ As the country develops a new plan for a national panda park, it must balance tourism with preservation
espite the fact that the number of giant pandas is once again on the rise and its risk status has just been downgraded from endangered to vulnerable, a new study by Chinese zoologists found that pandas are actually at a greater risk today than three decades ago.
Ouyang Zhiyun, deputy director of Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, led his team in analyzing satellite data about panda habitats over the past four decades.
The team found that China's pandas are facing greater risks now due to fragmentation and shrinking of their natural habitats as well as species segregation. The damning findings were published three weeks ago in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
According to Ouyang's team, International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) evaluation system only factors about the overall number of pandas while neglecting other potential threats.
"Due to forest harvesting and the construction of roads and transportation infrastructure as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes and debris flow, the area of panda habitats today is smaller than in 1976 and 1988 and they are more 'fragmented'," Ouyang told Xinhua News Agency.
Last year, IUCN downgraded the giant panda's extinction status based on 2014 data by Chinese authorities, which showed that there were 1,864 wild pandas, an increase of 17 percent compared with 2005.
In comparison with this improvement, however, Ouyang has found that giant panda habitats decreased by 4.9 percent between 1976 and 2001 and only increased by 0.4 percent from 2001 to 2013. In sum, habitat recovery has not offset previous habitat loss.
He said the primary reason for this habitat loss and fragmentation is human activity. For example, roads are dividing pandas' living spaces; road density in China in 2013 was 2.7 times larger than in 1976. Habitats impacted within 500 meters from roads increased by 6.6 times, read his report.
Ouyang told media that the recent rapid development of tourism has also brought many new troubles to protected panda habitats.
In an undercover interview, the founder of a tourism agency providing wildlife tour services bragged that it is easier to see pandas up close in Qinling Mountains than in Sichuan Province, as the Qinling Mountains area "has a higher density of wild pandas."
He claimed that he could take tourists inside protected panda habitats. "Now it's strictly scrutinized. It will take us some time to bribe people working there to get you in," he said.
Qinling in Shaanxi Province is a major habitat for giant pandas. The adorable animals mainly live in northern Sichuan, southern Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.
The unethical operator added that spring and winter are the best seasons to go on a panda tour. The cost of such a panda trip depends on the number of tourists in the group and how many days they will spend there. The man did not provide an exact amount, but noted that "it won't be cheap to see a panda."
"Even though you pay to see pandas, we won't refund you money if you are unlucky in spotting a wild panda. It's a chance of luck," he said.
In a previous Global Times report, agencies were quoted charging tourists high fees for an opportunity to "take care of" pandas in captivity. Experts have cautioned that such unethical tourism behavior will have negative influences on pandas.
The severe fragmentation of giant pandas' habitats is now leading to segregation among different species, which disturbs their genealogical advancement. Some 30 panda species currently live in six mountains, 18 of which have less than 10 pandas and face extinction, according to Ouyang's report.
"Because they are mammals, long-term inbreeding is bad for the improvement of the species as well as its numbers," Gu Xiaodong, an official with Forestry Department of Sichuan Province, told the Sichuan Daily newspaper. Gu added that the long distances between each major panda habitat poses obstacles for their interaction.