Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are one of the most recognizable animals in the world, but they are at risk of extinction. There are only about 1,800 pandas left in the wild and their very slow reproduction puts them at risk of declining even more. China is stepping up to avoid losing its animal icon by developing a massive natural park especially for it.

Giant panda. Image credits: Chen Wu.

Pandas are listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of threatened species. The biggest problem is that panda habitats have been severely fragmented by agriculture and logging and as a result, it’s becoming harder and harder for pandas to search new areas with bamboo and to avoid inbreeding. Right now there are several isolated populations of pandas spread across mountainous southwestern China. More than 80 percent of the world’s wild pandas live in Sichuan province, while the rest live in Shaanxi and Gansu.

The goal of the future Giant Panda National Park is to connect and encourage breeding between these last panda populations. The Chinese government hopes that this intermingling will help to promote panda breeding. The park is planned to cover 27, 134 square kilometers (10,476 square miles), and thus be three times the size of Yellowstone National Park in the USA.

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The fragmented habitat where panda bears live. Image credits: World Wildlife Fund.

Chinese state media confirmed the new today, marking fruition of the plan proposed last year by the ruling Communist Party and the State Council.

The Bank of China and the Sichuan Provincial Department of Forestry will offer at least 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) towards the park over the next five years. The investment will go towards alleviating poverty in the region, in order to remove stress from the natural areas. It will also be used to provide much-needed infrastructure for the park.

China will need to improve connectivity in the park so that the pandas have access points across roads and fields, not to mention make sure that the habitat maintained in the park is preserved, for the plan to be a success. It is an ambitious plan which comes at a critical point for panda populations. They are many positive aspects to the plan, so let’s hope that it is successful!