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Giant pandas no longer endangered, but hold the applause

Giant pandas are now merely a now merely 'threatened,' says the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But many have expressed doubt as to whether the species has made a comeback – or even if it should.

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    Two of one-month-old Panda triples receive a body check at the Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou in south China's Guangdong province on Aug. 28, 2014. The International Union for Conservation of Nature said in a report released Sunday that the panda is now classified as 'vulnerable' instead of 'endangered,' reflecting its growing numbers in the wild in southern China.
    Kin Cheung/AP/File
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When the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced that the status of the giant panda had been reduced from "endangered" to "threatened," most people were excited.

The iconic animal native to China has been a symbol of conservation efforts around the world for decades, and the bear finally seems to be on the rebound.

But Chinese officials were quick to call the IUCN's announcement into question, raising concerns about the effectiveness of panda-counting methods. The news has also raised questions about the disproportionately large amount of attention the panda has been given by conservationists over the years.

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For many, the cuddly white-and-black bear is the quintessential endangered species. Its distinctive markings and mild temperament have made it a beloved mainstay of zoos across the world.

But the panda is a legendarily difficult species for conservationists to work with. The bear is notoriously picky, with a 99 percent bamboo diet. Their restrictive diet combined with the panda's notoriously low drive to mate have made it extremely difficult for the Chinese government to help the creature on a large scale in the wild, requiring lots of money and manpower. And pandas bred in captivity may not survive reintroduction to the wild, according to Pandas International.

The panda's rebound is largely the result of a massive effort to recreate and repopulate the bamboo forests that feed the pandas, according to the BBC.

"It's all about restoring the habitats," Craig Hilton-Taylor, Head of the IUCN Red List, told the BBC. "Just by restoring the panda's habitat, that's given them back their space and made food available to them."

Thanks to the coordinated conservation efforts by the Chinese government and nongovernmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the wild panda population has risen to 2,060, of which 1,864 are adults, according to a survey conducted from 2011 to 2014.

Yet many question whether the high cost and manpower required to save the relatively ecologically unimportant panda is worth the effort. While few, if anyone, would advocate leaving the panda completely to its own devices, many experts suggest that a lot of resources currently earmarked for pandas would be better spent elsewhere.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported last year, the panda's legendary indifference to procreation has resulted in the Chinese government and NGOs giving the panda a massive amount of financial and political resources to save it compared to other species, especially considering the panda's relatively small impact on the ecosystem. Many less adorable endangered animals, such as the insects that provide a crucial part of our global ecosystem, are largely ignored. Unfortunately, a lot of conservation funding tends to be driven by the "cute" factor, rather than cold, hard science.

Even the WWF, which has used a panda as its logo for decades, took the opportunity in a press release on the panda rebound to emphasize that many other species are increasing threat, including the Eastern gorilla.

On top of that, some conservation experts are even questioning whether the panda has even begun to make a comeback at all.

"It is too early to conclude that pandas are actually increasing in the wild – perhaps we are simply getting better at counting wild pandas," Marc Brody, senior adviser for conservation and sustainable development at China's Wolong Nature Reserve, told National Geographic.

"While the Chinese government deserves credit and support for recent progress in management of both captive and wild giant pandas ... there is no justifiable reason to downgrade the listing from endangered to threatened," he added.

The panda counting method is hard to wield with certainty, according to The Washington Post. The count relies on looking at individual bite marks on bamboo extracted from panda droppings. This in combination with inconsistent areas in panda population surveys have led some, including the Chinese government, to doubt whether there are enough pandas to justify a downgrade from "endangered" to "threatened."

"If we downgrade their conservation status, or neglect or relax our conservation work, the populations and habitats of giant pandas could still suffer irreversible loss and our achievements would be quickly lost," China's State Forestry Administration said in a statement to the Associated Press. "Therefore, we're not being alarmist by continuing to emphasize the panda species' endangered status."

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