Free-Roaming Dogs Keep Pandas From Thriving

The dogs limit how much habitat the bears can use.

Panda resting in a tree ( Chengdu ; Sichuan ; China )
A panda rests in a tree in Sichuan, China. kiszon pascal / Getty Images

Hunters used dogs to help track and kill pandas in China until the country declared the iconic species protected in 1962. Numerous nature reserves were established to keep the black and white bear safe. But more than 50 years later, dogs are still threatening the safety of this vulnerable species, according to a new study.

Researchers started their investigation when two captive-born pandas, which had been released into Liziping Nature Reserve, were attacked by dogs.

“There are dogs in panda reserves because there are villages near the reserves and people have dogs. Unfortunately these poor villagers do not have the resources that we have to fence in or leash their dogs all the time. The dogs wander off into the reserves," study co-author James Spotila of Drexel University told Treehugger.

"A giant panda is quite able to defend itself against one dog. However, it has a hard time chasing off a pack of dogs. Dogs bite and cause minor injuries, but those can lead to lethal material infections.”

In the study, which was published in Scientific Reports, the researchers found that dogs can roam more than 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) a night. Some feral dogs even live in the reserves.

Earlier research found that pandas need a habitat of at least 44 square miles (114 square kilometers) to thrive. Although most of the nature reserves created for the pandas are large enough to sustain their populations, the pandas' territory could become smaller if dogs become part of it.

The research team discovered that 40% of all giant panda reserves in China are within range of free-roaming dogs. Therefore, only 60% of the protected area is really safely available to the bears.

Controlling Free-Roaming Dogs

In the study, the team makes several recommendations in order to ensure dog-control measures within the reserves and the nearby villages.

“To help pandas survive in the wild the Chinese government needs to make larger reserves — which they are doing," Spotila said. "And the government needs to continue its proactive program of releasing captive born giant pandas into reserves to supplement the wild populations. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Sichuan China, is leading that effort of relocating captive-born pandas into the wild.”

The researchers suggest comprehensive efforts by local village leaders to license and collar dogs and offer them free vaccination and neutering clinics.

"We are happy to say that the Chinese government has instituted a broad program to vaccinate the dogs and to help the villagers either remove the dogs or control them all the time. So things are getting much better," Spotila said. "It is amazing that the Chinese people and their government have responded in such a positive manner as soon as our data reached them.”

Spotila said he believes that after conservation efforts with the giant panda, dog-control measures are key to helping the bears thrive.

“Only by understanding and managing complex interactions between humans, domestic animals, and wild animals can we sustain natural systems in a world increasingly dominated by humans,” Spotila said.