Helping Giant Pandas Doesn't Always Help Their Neighbors

The "umbrella effect" doesn't necessarily protect other species.

Giant pandas have very specific habitat preferences.
Giant pandas have very specific habitat preferences.

Dingqian Xiang

For decades, giant pandas have been the face of conservation. The iconic black and white bear is “vulnerable” but no longer endangered after high-profile efforts to save the species.

But while these charismatic bears have benefited from habitat and conservation measures, their popularity hasn’t necessarily affected their closest neighbors, a new study finds. The protections given to pandas aren’t also safeguarding nearby species, as many conservationists had hoped.

“The popularity of giant pandas, as of the popularity of other beloved threatened animals across the world, has generated tremendous advances in protecting forests and other fragile habitats,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Michigan State University’s Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and a paper author, in a statement.

“But this is an important reminder that it can’t assume that what’s good for a panda is automatically good for other species. Different species have specific needs and preferences.”

In nature, many species can benefit from a kind of “umbrella effect,” gaining from other animals around them.

“Beavers build dams and benefit fish and birds, monarch butterflies require milkweed and urban greenspace which would benefit bees and other insects,” Fang Wang, first author and research ecologist at the Institute of Biodiversity Science at Fudan University in Shanghai, tells Treehugger.

“In this case, we identified takin [an antelope-goat], muntjac, tufted deer and many species have benefited from panda conservation, but we should not assume such effect without quantitative measurements.”

Analyzing Pandas and Nearby Species

takin, a type of antelope-goat
Takins benefited from panda conservation measures.

Fang Wang

For the study, researchers analyzed eight mammal species using camera trap data in the Qinling and Minshan Mountains in central and southwest China. With 42 giant panda nature reserves, the mountain ranges are home to more than 60% of the remaining giant panda population. 

The natural landscapes in the areas have been affected by commercial logging, highway construction, agriculture, and other human activities. But since the late 1990s, they have been under protection and restoration measures through the work of conservation programs.

Three of the eight species studied — the Asiatic black bear, the forest musk deer, and the Chinese serow (which resembles a goat) — has significant habitat loss even under panda conservation efforts. The species had some improvements in areas where the panda nature reserve systems had no protections.

Their findings were published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Pandas have very specific habitat needs. They require plenty of bamboo, a gentle slope, and no human contact. The researchers point out that the managed panda habitats have given them mostly what they needed, but that isn’t necessarily beneficial to their neighboring species.

“From the northmost to southmost of the giant panda habitat, we can see various forest types including conifer, broadleaf and mixed forest, with more than 50 different bamboo species, and the annual precipitation, temperature, and many other environmental characteristics all differ,” Wang says.

“In such a large area, animals will inevitably be associated with different habitat types. That is why giant panda conservation cannot cover everything at the same time. Since most giant panda conservation efforts were targeted at medium to higher altitude, species who need lower land, river valleys, and broadleaf or early successional forest would have troubles.”

Working Toward a Balanced Ecosystem

While conservation efforts have been good news for giant panda, there’s a lesson to be learned from these findings, Wang says.

“A fixed management plan can not solve everything. We suggest future reserves and national parks adopt a more flexible decision-making system,” he suggests.

“First, decisions should be made based on empirical data. Second, even in giant panda nature reserves, we should have multiple conservation targets to cover giant pandas, forest, and other species (maybe black bears) at the same time. Third, the effectiveness of nature reserves should be evaluated from a multi-species perspective, because what we need is a balanced ecosystem instead of a single species.”

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