Giant pandas are making a comeback — but their habitat is still taking a beating, satellite data reveals.

Giant Panda Eating.

Image credits Chen Wu.

Back in 1988 giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) weren’t in a great shape. In fact, they were struggling so much so that the species was listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as endangered. Not somewhere you want to find yourself.

Luckily, since then things have been looking up for our furred friends. They’ve become the de-facto poster-species for conservation efforts and green living at large, and just last year, it was decided they’ve recovered enough that they can be safely be downgraded to ‘vulnerable’. But not all is well in Pandaland, an international team of researchers reports.

First off, there’s only about 1,800 of them roaming about in the wild, so extending reserves and establishing new ones is still critical to ensure the species’ survival. But more worryingly, the animals’ habitat is becoming a fragmented mosaic of what it once was.

Eye in the sky

“What’s new in this study is our ability to assess the status of the giant panda by using satellite imagery and then use that information to come up with recommendations of how better to manage this iconic threatened species,” said Prof Stuart Pimm, of Duke University, North Carolina, US, who is a researcher on the study.

Drawing on satellite imagery and remote sensing, the joint Chinese-US team assessed changes across the giant pandas’ range from 1976 to 2013. They report that suitable panda habitats have been substantially reduced over this period as a result of earthquakes and human encroachment from agriculture, building, tourism, and logging. The issue isn’t so much one of size — habitat area has decreased by almost 5% from 1976 to 2001, but has since been increasing, they explain. The real issue is habitat fragmentation, which limits a population’s access to food and water sources, and isolates groups and their gene pools from the species at large, promoting inbreeding. Average habitat-patch size was gone down 23% over the same period and has only “slightly” increased since.

“I think we now understand we’ve got to keep an eye on the habitats where pandas live,” said paper co-author Prof Pimm. “But it also points to the need to try and re-connect isolated panda habitats by building what we call biological corridors.”

Developments such as roads running through a habitat will effectively cleave it in two smaller pieces, isolating groups of animals from one another. Creating ways for them to communicate (such as road over- or under-passes, structures know as biological corridors) is essential to ensure the health of the overall species. Similarly, future developments should be designed “responsibly with the lowest possible environmental impact,” says WWF’s Head of Asian programmes, John Baker.

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Today, pandas in the wild inhabit areas throughout six mountain ranges in China’s Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Apart from the issue of habitat fragmentation, the team reports that the regions are making some “encouraging” changes, such as slamming the breaks on logging and establishing nature reserves.

“But conservation is a dynamic process with humans and nature in a constant push and pull to survive and thrive, so new solutions always are in demand,” says paper co-author Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University.

The paper “Reassessing the conservation status of the giant panda using remote sensing” has been published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

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