China’s giant pandas are some of the most rare and beloved animals on Earth. These black-and-white bears have long been a global icon of the urgent need for humans to preserve natural habitats and protect wildlife worldwide.
Since 1961, the distinctive giant panda has served as the official logo of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), providing an internationally recognized symbol for the conservation movement. At that time and in the years following, this rarest member of the bear family faced extinction due to the significant human-caused threats posed by China’s rapidly expanding population. Wild panda populations were on the decline for decades, and the bears were listed as “Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
A Banner Year for Pandas
The year 2016 has brought several encouraging signs that offer renewed hope for the panda bears’ long-term survival. On June 20, two twin female pandas were born at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the Sichuan province of south-central China. Then, on September 4, WWF announced that giant pandas are no longer considered endangered by the IUCN. A nationwide census documenting China’s panda population had found 1,864 bears living in the wild—a 17 percent increase since 2003!
These positive developments are a direct result of more than 30 years of coordinated efforts by the Chinese government, WWF and other non-governmental conservation organizations. Ecotourism in China has also played a key role in protecting pandas by supporting local communities, providing financial support for giant panda research and breeding, and encouraging the protection of at-risk wild places in China.
Today, giant pandas are revered in China, widely regarded as a national treasure and a source of great pride for the Chinese people. This “walking yin-yang” is emblematic of the ways in which many Chinese view the world, and also symbolizes the lesser known wild side of China. Pandas also play a crucial role in fertilizing the bamboo forests they live in by spreading seeds that foster the growth of lush native vegetation.
The Future of Pandas in China
So what’s next for the world’s cutest creature? While they are continuing to make a slow but steady recovery, the giant pandas in China are still at risk. Hundreds of millions of people also inhabit the same Yangtze River Basin region as the panda bears, so human encroachments continue to threaten the mountainous habitats where the wild pandas live. Major infrastructure projects are fragmenting the alpine bamboo forests, isolating panda populations in ways that often prevent them from mating.
To address these threats, China’s government and WWF have worked together to establish more than 67 giant panda reserves that currently protect nearly two-thirds of the country’s pandas. The Chinese National Conservation Program safeguards more than 3.9 million acres of mountainous forests as nature reserves that shelter countless wildlife species. As part of its 2015-2025 giant panda conservation strategy, WWF will continue to collaborate with the Chinese government to increase legal protections for wild panda habitats while also allowing for the sustainable development of local communities. These conservation initiatives include helping China establish a more integrated network of wildlife corridors that connect formerly isolated panda reserves.
The multiple panda bases and nature reserves in the Minshan Mountains not far outside of urban Chengdu provide protected sanctuaries for this vulnerable species to continue its recovery. A few lucky travelers may even get the rare volunteer opportunity to care for giant pandas at Dujiangyan Panda Valley, China’s newest facility for panda research.
Although China’s formerly endangered giant pandas are still listed as “Vulnerable,” 2016 gave us reason to celebrate this conservation success story. We hope that ecotourism in China and collaborative conservation efforts will continue help keep these bears on the rebound path in the years ahead.