Wild Pandas Are Bouncing Back, New Survey Suggests

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China estimates 1,864 giant pandas now live in the wild, a major increase but still well below historical populations. (Photo: WWF).

Giant pandas have lived in China's bamboo forests for several million years, but their run nearly came to an abrupt end last century. Populations crashed as humans cleared swaths of panda habitat, turning the humble bears into global icons for dwindling wildlife. We've since spent decades trying to save them, but we've also begun saving more of their habitat — and a new report suggests that's finally working.

An estimated 1,864 giant pandas now exist in the wild, according to China's Fourth National Giant Panda Survey, which was unveiled this week by the country's State Forestry Administration. That represents a 16.8 percent increase from the last survey 10 years ago, and it represents a major development in the long-term campaign to revive one of the most popular endangered species on the planet.

"The rise in the population of wild giant pandas is a victory for conservation and definitely one to celebrate," says Ginette Hemley, senior vice president of wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), in a statement. The WWF contributed funding and technical expertise for the survey.

giant panda
A researcher takes photos of a 3-month-old panda at a captive-breeding center in Chengdu, Sichuan. (Photo: Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

As National Geographic points out, some conservationists say the rise in panda numbers might be partly due to a broader survey area and improved methods. While previous surveys relied on studying scat samples, the new one used that technique plus analysis of DNA taken from panda scat and mucus. It also covered more space, raising questions about its compatibility with past surveys.

Yet China stands by its estimate, and despite any reservations about the details, National Geographic adds that few experts doubt the overall upward trend the report conveys. Panda populations do seem to be increasing, and that's largely because of ongoing efforts to restore their lost territory.

All remaining wild pandas live in three Chinese provinces — Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu — and about 70 percent of those are in Sichuan. But the species has reclaimed some old habitat in recent years, including bamboo corridors designed to link isolated populations and thus improve genetic diversity.

China now has 67 panda preserves overall, an increase of 27 since the last survey. And in addition to possibly dramatic population growth over the past decade, the geographic range of giant pandas has also expanded 11.8 percent since 2003, according to the WWF. About a third of wild pandas still live outside refuges in unprotected forests, but Chinese authorities say they have a plan to fix that.

"From this year, we'll absolutely not allow tourism, mining, or building parks and villas in or around giant panda habitats," says Chen Fengxue, deputy director of the State Forestry Adminstration, in an official statement about the survey released March 3. "We'll expand nature reserves as much as possible and channel the 33 isolated groups in three or five years."

China isn't known as a stalwart of wildlife conservation, thanks to cultural traditions that fuel demand for rhino horn, shark fins and other rare animal products. But the country has made notable progress in recent years, including bans on shark-fin soup and ivory imports that have drawn cautious praise from conservationists. And by protecting "biodiversity hotspots" where giant pandas live, China is also protecting other species like takins, golden snub-nosed monkeys, red pandas and serows.

newborn panda
Newborn pandas, like this captive-bred cub in Chengdu, are just 1/900th the size of their mothers. (Photo: Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

Scientists are now successfully breeding pandas in captivity, a major breakthrough built on many years of failure. Introducing those pandas to the wild is still tricky, though, and China is spending millions to prepare captive-born pandas for independent lives in forests. But as the WWF notes, that's increasingly possible only because China has also committed to making sure those forests still exist.

"This is a testament to the commitment made by the Chinese government for the last 30-plus years to wild panda conservation," Hemley says. "WWF is grateful to have had the opportunity to partner with the Chinese government to contribute to panda conservation efforts."

For a glimpse of captive-born panda cubs that may one day return to the wild, check out this clip from "Earth: A New Wild," a new PBS series hosted by biologist M. Sanjayan.