Why Giant Pandas Are Still at Risk

This conservation icon is no longer endangered, but it still needs help.

giant panda lounges on a rock
There are an estimated 1,800 pandas left in the wild.

 guenterguni / Getty Images

Long the face of the conservation movement, giant pandas were upgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species In September 2016. The listing change followed a 17% increase in the population in China from 2004 to 2014. There are an estimated 1,800 pandas left in the wild with the numbers increasing.

Threats

The improved status shows that the government's efforts to help conserve the panda have been somewhat effective. But there are still obstacles to overcome, including habitat loss and the impact of the climate crisis on bamboo, the panda's main food source. 

Habitat Loss

Although the giant panda has experienced a recent increase in some habitat in China, habitat loss continues to be the primary threat facing the species, according to the IUCN. Giant pandas lived in China's bamboo forests for several million years, but their numbers were decimated as humans cleared acres of habitat for homes and agriculture, roads and mining.

In 1988, the Chinese government banned logging in the panda’s habitat. But new roads and railways are still being built in the area. That not only clears trees, but also fragments the forests, isolating small groups of panda populations.

Fragmentation

The panda population has as many as 33 subpopulations, and more than half of those contain fewer than 10 individuals, reports the IUNC. These small groups are often cut off from habitat, food sources, and from other pandas.

Because some of these subpopulations are so small, conservation geneticists are concerned about inbreeding in these groups. It’s often linked with decreased fertility and can impact survival rates.

Climate Crisis and Bamboo

Bamboo makes up about 90% of a panda’s diet, according to the WWF. Because bamboo is low in nutrients, pandas eat a lot of it, spending about 12 hours a day munching on the thick stalks and leaves.

But bamboo may be quite vulnerable to the climate crisis. Depending on the species, some bamboo only reproduces every 15 to 100 years. Others only thrive at certain temperatures or elevations.

giant panda eats bamboo
Bamboo makes up about 90% of a panda's diet.  Craig Sellars / Getty Images

With warming temperatures and changing habitats, pandas have limited access to bamboo, says the IUCN. One study published in the journal Nature Climate Change predicted that global warming will wipe out much of the bamboo the bears rely on for food.

The IUCN says the climate crisis is predicted to eliminate more than one-third of the panda’s bamboo habitat in the next 80 years. As a result, they expect the panda population to decline, "reversing the gains made during the last two decades.”

Poaching

Poaching was a problem in the past, as the animals were hunted for their fur. But China passed the Wildlife Protection Law, enacted in 1988 and revised in 2016, which banned the breeding, hunting, and selling of hundreds of animals including the giant panda. However, the IUCN points out that pandas are sometimes still accidentally caught in traps set out for other animals.

What We Can Do 

A census in the mid-1970s found only 2,459 pandas in China, according to the WWF, which alerted the government to the species' precarious position. Since then, the panda has been the focus of a high-profile campaign to save the species. 

Since that eye-opening report, poaching has been banned, panda nature reserves have been created, and partnerships between the Chinese government and zoos around the world have assisted with breeding and research efforts.

China now has a network of 67 panda reserves, which protect more than 66% of the giant pandas in the wild and nearly 54% of their existing habitat. In partnership with the WWF, the Chinese government has developed bamboo corridors to allow pandas to more easily move to new areas, find more food, and meet more potential mates, which will also help improve genetic diversity.

Although recent population increases show that some success has been achieved, the panda still needs help. The IUCN notes that the Chinese government plans to continue to protect panda habitat and monitor population. “They recognize the challenges the future holds, and in particular will seek to address problems of habitat connectivity and population fragmentation.”

To help giant pandas, you can donate to the WWF to conserve the species and their habitats.