China / Environment

Wild panda sightings spark hope of recovery

By Huang Zhiling (China Daily) Updated: 2016-08-04 07:40

Wild panda sightings spark hope of recovery

A wild female giant panda is restrained by farmers worried that she would be hurt by hunting dogs after she burst into a village in Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province, in early April. The panda had been released from captivity. Ake Jiushe / For China Daily

Wild pandas have been spotted three times at the foot of Jiajin Mountain in Sichuan province since July last year, which conservationists attribute to improvements in the ecological health of the area.

Patrolling the mountain at around 8:40 am on Saturday, Chen Min, an employee of the Jiajin Mountain Forestry Bureau in Ya'an, Sichuan, saw two adult wild pandas walking leisurely along National Highway 351.

"One disappeared into the forest soon after it saw me. The other kept walking slowly and was not intimidated even when my automobile was nearby," he said.

Because there is a river near the highway, Chen speculated that the pandas might have had a drink before they crossed the highway and disappeared into the woods.

"Wild pandas have been found by both patrollers and local farmers since July last year," Chen said. "One farmer even reported a wild panda eating honey in his house near the highway."

Sichuan began imposing bans on the felling of virgin forests in 1998 to protect the ecology of the upper reaches of the Yangtze River.

"The efforts have paid off on Jiajin Mountain, where there are more lush trees, less landslides and more wild pandas," said Zhang Hemin, chief of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wenchuan county, Sichuan. His center has a panda base in Ya'an.

The latest census tallied 1,864 wild pandas and 375 captive pandas worldwide at the end of 2013. That compares with the earlier count of 1,596 wild pandas and 164 captive pandas.

Wild panda sightings spark hope of recovery

Despite the rise in the number of wild pandas, the animals remain an endangered species.

Pandas survive solely along the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in six mountain ranges, five of which are in Sichuan. But their habitat, which totals about 23,050 square kilometers, is vulnerable. With most valleys in their ranges inhabited by humans, many panda populations are isolated in narrow belts of bamboo no more than 1,000 to 2,000 meters in width.

"Therefore, their actual geographical range is much smaller than generally depicted on maps," said Zhang Zhihe, chief of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

Twenty-four of the 33 groups of wild pandas found in the most recent census are believed to be endangered, with some groups having fewer than 30 pandas, Zhang Hemin said.

Eighteen groups have fewer than 10 pandas each and are in severe danger of dying off, he added.

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