Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Giant pandas need protection so do other species

By Zhang Tiankan (China Daily) Updated: 2016-09-10 07:10

On Sept 4, the International Union for Conservation of Nature downgraded the giant panda from "endangered" to "vulnerable" on its red list of threatened species, because the wild stocks of the species have been recovering. By the end of 2013, China had 1,864 giant pandas in the wild, 67 percent more than the number (1,114) from 1985 to 1988. The number of captive giant pandas, too, increased, from 164 to 375.

Yet the State Forestry Administration responded that the giant panda is still under threat and its habitats remain fragmented, so it is too early to be declared "vulnerable", a better conservation status than "endangered".

Many media outlets have highlighted the spat with headlines such as "IUCN and China's forestry administration quarrel over giant panda", ignoring the fact that both the IUCN and SFA admit the species needs protection, and they only differ on the degree of threat it faces.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species has seven categories. Taking away the "extinct" and "extinct in the wild" groups, "endangered" is the most serious and "vulnerable" second only to it. As such, the change made by the IUCN doesn't make a major difference because "vulnerable" species, too, need special protection.

Several benchmarks are used to classify a species "endangered", such as whether the total number adults in the wild is below 250, whether their area of distribution is less than 5,000 square kilometers and whether their stocks have been dropping abruptly for the past 10 years. If a species meets any one of these yardsticks, it is labeled "endangered".

Judging from these criteria, the giant panda is no longer endangered. And the main reason for that is, China has deterred poachers and restored its habitats, which the IUCN has spoken highly of.

China, too, is proud of that achievement, but the SFA is more concerned about the difficulties ahead. Giant pandas still face two major threats: fragmented habitats make it difficult for the wild stocks to mate with each other and climate change is likely to reduce by about 35 percent of the bamboo forests, their only source of food.

Therefore, even though the IUCN has downgraded the threat giant pandas face, there is no reason to underestimate the difficulties ahead in its conservation. In fact, China has been taking multiple measures, such as establishing and enlarging special forest areas, for their conservation.

The problem is, the giant panda is just one of the hundreds of threatened species in China. Incomplete data show that more than 120 species listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species are from China, while over 400 are listed in the country's Red Data Book of Endangered Animals. And the endangered lists of provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions contain the names of hundreds of other animals.

The giant panda is perhaps the most fortunate among all threatened species, because it is considered the symbol of China and enjoys special protection. China's giant panda conservation efforts include earmarking natural protection areas and strict implementation of the laws banning trade in the species or its body parts. The other threatened species, in contrast, do not enjoy such protection. Some of them, such as the white-flag dolphin or baiji, which is found only in the Yangtze River, are under greater threat than the giant panda, but the protection they enjoy is far below that given to the giant panda.

Given these facts, China has to take comprehensive measures to save all the threatened species. And to do that, it should invest more resources in conservation projects and implement stricter laws on animal and habitat protection.

The author is deputy editor in chief of Encyclopedia magazine and a former researcher in medical science.

(China Daily 09/10/2016 page5)

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