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Panda population jumps, but outlook not black and white

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 2004


The rare giant panda, China's roly-poly ambassador, has lost habitat and numbers for decades. Living in just five mountain enclaves, eating only the choicest bamboo, gentle and impossibly adorable - the panda is a poster-child for endangered species of all kinds.

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But in the first major panda survey in 15 years the good news is that the panda appears to be holding its own in the wild, for now. Hopeful scientists feel that if a stout defense can be made of the panda habitat by Chinese authorities, the furry black and white creature known here as a "bear-cat" can escape extinction. The survey, carried out by the Chinese forest ministry and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and released here Thursday, is the most extensive ever. It shows about 1,590 wild pandas in central China, an increase from a 1988 estimate of 1,100.

A 1998 logging ban, new reserves, and special protected "corridors" that allow pandas to move between their high-altitude habitats has helped, Chinese officials say, as have programs to reforest farmlands.

Yet whether a positive panda trend line can continue is uncertain. Panda habitats continue to be plagued by illegal logging, road building, and a lack of local enforcement of laws, programs, and protection zones that were instituted in the mid-1990s, experts say. The major threat continues to be a fragmenting of panda habitat by encroachment - which sends the already solitary bears deeper into the mountains, further isolating them.

"The numbers of pandas are less important," said Wang Da Jun, head of the Panda Protection Research Center at Beijing University. "Of top importance is whether their habitats worsen, which means the panda may not continue to exist." Mr. Wang is quoted in the current "Life week" magazine here, in a cover story that tempered Thursday's glowing official results. China's leading authority on pandas, Hu Jin Chu, says bear numbers are as low as 1,000 and as high as 1,500.

In image-conscious China the affection felt world-wide for the panda makes it a most political bear at home. The new survey, in fact, started in 1999 and finished two years ago. But it was held up by opaque internal wrangling in China's bureaucracy over what the findings meant, and how to present them. (Thursday's state council report embedded the panda survey in an omnibus announcement that included wetlands, flora and fauna, wildlife preserves, antelopes, monkeys, deer, and tigers. It concluded that "remarkable progress" is taking place in all areas.)

When it comes to panda progress, however, guaging accuracy is difficult. The bears are stealthy and elusive. Some researchers have studied pandas all their lives and never seen one in the wild, experts say. Much of what is known about panda habits and behavior dates to seminal field work in the mid-1970s by eminent naturalist George Schaller.

Counts are conducted by identifying individual pandas by the teeth marks on undigested bamboo found in their droppings. Panda teeth marks act like fingerprints. In the current survey, 174 field researchers used global positioning satellites to track the movements of animals via their droppings. The result is a more comprehensive study than in 1988. The use of GPS, for example, reveals that one-third of pandas live in unprotected habitats, according to WWF.