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Geography in the News: Declining Panda Habitat

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Lost Panda Habitat

Two days after the devastating earthquake hit China in mid-May, 2008, officials were able to confirm that all of China’s estimated 239 giant pandas in captivity were alive and well. Unfortunately, the fate of the 1,590 pandas living in the wild in the country was unknown.

Because of the huge loss of human life, a disrupted infrastructure and massive efforts to provide food and housing for residents displaced by the Chinese earthquake, no one was able to determine how much damage was sustained by China’s wild panda population. Most wild pandas lived in and around China’s Sichuan province near the earthquake’s epicenter. Damage from this earthquake, even in remote rural areas, was horrific.

Since then, the government has been able to accomplish a panda census. The panda population is almost sacred to the Chinese and the government goes to great lengths in safe guarding the surviving population. But the panda’s natural habitat continues to decline.

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, or literally “black-and-white cat-footed animal”) is a mammal classified in the bear family (Ursidae) and native to central-western and southwestern China. Pandas are easily recognized by the large black patches around the eyes, over the ears and across its round body.

Scientists place pandas in the scientific order Carnivora and their digestive systems mimic those of other carnivores. However, today’s pandas are mostly vegetarians. They now have a diet consisting almost entirely of the stems and leaves of bamboo. Occasionally, however, when bamboo is scarce or other foods are available, such as flowers, mushrooms, grass, fish, honey, eggs, root crops and fruits, pandas will eat small amounts of them.

Scientists estimate that pandas first appeared on the earth 2 to 3 million years ago. Panda territory originally included South and East China and parts of Myanmar and Northern Vietnam, though fossil evidence shows that pandas lived almost as far north as Beijing. While in the past, panda habitats were more extensive in area, today’s wild pandas are found only in six isolated forest areas in Shaanxi, Sichuan and Gansu provinces of China.

gitn_940_pandas
Map by Geography in the News and Maps.com
Boundaries and names shown do not necessarily reflect the map policy of the National Geographic Society.

The giant panda is an endangered species. Native pandas presently live in high mountainous areas of Central China, usually from 8,500 to 11,500 feet (2,700 to 3,700 m) above sea level and naturally forested with fir, spruce and bamboo. Pandas once lived also in lowland areas, but human activities like agriculture, timber harvest and development today confine wild pandas to the remote mountainous areas.

In fact, according to the Wanglang Nature Reserve of Sichuan, China, which works to protect the panda and its habitat, there are only 29 small, fragmented areas that have the exact characteristics needed to support the remaining wild pandas of the world. Habitat destruction is the greatest threat to the survival of the species. In the eleven years from 1973 to 1984, suitable panda habitat shrunk by 50 percent in the isolated areas where pandas live.

The Wanglang Reserve also lists interruption of migration routes as a major threat to the giant panda. Bamboo, the panda’s food of choice, plays an integral role in pandas’ movements. Each species of bamboo flowers, sets its seed and then dies at regular intervals ranging from 10 to 100 years depending on the species. Though the plant is able to regenerate from seed within a year, it may take up to 20 years before the bamboo can support an entire panda population again. Therefore, when the bamboo flowers in one area, pandas are forced to move to areas where the bamboo has not yet flowered or face starvation. Before so much panda habitat was lost, the animals were able to easily move between areas.

Scientists surmise that the migration of giant pandas forced by bamboo flowering historically played a role in maintaining healthy panda populations. Panda movement promoted breeding between different populations, thus discouraging in-breeding, which can weaken a species.

Panda infant mortality is high both in captivity and in the wild. They are susceptible to illness and predators including leopards, packs of wild dogs and eagles.

In 2006, scientists reported that the number of pandas living in the wild may have previously been underestimated at about 1,000. Through a new method that analyzes DNA from panda droppings, scientists were able to estimate the wild panda population may be as large as 1,600 animals, with 200 more living in captivity.

The Wanglang Reserve of China suggests conservation strategies for helping the remaining pandas survive and encourage panda breeding. Reducing human activities in and rehabilitating panda habitat, adding additional panda reserves and strengthening conservation education and public awareness may be paying off.

If the ravages of disease, loss of habitat and earthquakes don’t interfere too much, conservationists may save one of the world’s most beautiful and interesting creatures.

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN 940, “Panda Revival,” Maps.com, June 6, 2008; http://www.slack.net/~rd/wanglang/panda_facts.htm.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.