BEIJING — 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.
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.
Panda estimates vary: Chinese officials say that bears up to 18 months old do not leave distinctive teeth marks. This missing baby panda cohort in the survey has led some authorities here to claim the actual number of pandas is closer to 2,000. Chinese officials did not issue such assertions on paper. But Thursday they told reporters, "the number of pandas has doubled" since 1988. If true, it would indicate a dramatic reversal in what is commonly believed among naturalists about the state of the panda in the wild.
Yet it is not clear such panda progress is accurate. The reason: Most independent researchers now feel the earlier 1988 survey figure of 1,100 pandas was an underestimate. Hence the meaning of the new 1,590 panda figure is unclear.
Field survey techniques were similar 15 years ago. But the scope of the 1988 survey was limited. Karen Baragona, a specialist with the WWF, says the 1988 figure "was an extrapolation ... and likely an underestimate."
"The population estimate may have doubled, but the population number has not doubled," says Ms. Baragona of the panda status. "That's just not possible."
Mr. Schaller the naturalist points out that between 1975 and 1988, half of the pandas in the Wolong Reserve perished; Baragona points out that during the same period, "half the habitats in Sichuan [Province] were lost."
Pandas aren't part of traditional Chinese animal lore. One reason may be their foggy 8,500-foot isolated habitat. The bears, with their black and white markings, large heads, and flat faces made a terrific impression in the West. Yet little is known about these curious mammals.
They use their black eye patches to stare down one another in mating season, experts say, but will cover the eye-patches with their paws when they are afraid. At one point pandas were considered part of the raccoon family; but DNA results show they are bears. They love solitude, and desire the new leaves of the better brand of bamboo. Their very active 14-hour days are mostly spent eating in an area that may be only five to six city blocks in size. They have a carnivorous digestive tract, but are almost entirely vegetarian in practice.
Environmentalists dislike China's high price rental of pandas to overseas zoos, saying the funds should be used to protect the wild panda.
Schaller wrote during the panda-craze of the 1980s that "if we want to burden the panda with symbolism, reverence, and adulation, fine. However, we have a moral obligation to maintain the species in the wild."
Hard data on panda habitats has been useful to Chinese forestry officials, sources say. In one case transport officials agreed to build a tunnel rather than a road near a Sichuan mountain. Yet whether Beijing can staff and fund its new panda reserves, or carry out regular enforcement, is not certain, Beijing sources note.