The giant panda has been the charming, if oafish, face of the conservation movement for decades. Brought to the brink of extinction by habitat destruction (and the carnivore's own penchant for nutrient-poor bamboo and seeming disinterest in reproduction), the black and white bears finally appeared to be bouncing back. Surveys suggested that the panda population was increasing, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded the animal's status from "endangered" to "vulnerable."
But were panda populations increasing, or were humans just getting better at counting them in the wild? That question prompted a team of researchers from China and the United States to take a more comprehensive look at the panda's status, to include not just population but the extent and quality of its habitat. Their results are published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
While the number of protected panda reserves has increased rapidly over the last four decades, so have the number of roads that fragment unprotected panda territory. Population fragmentation is a threat for local extinctions. The current panda population is divided into some 30 isolated groups, the authors note, more than half of which consist of fewer than 10 individuals. But the roads aren't all bad; they also allowed more people to migrate to urban areas, which decreased the demand for natural resources in panda habitat.
Still, the authors found that, while conservation efforts have led to significant habitat recovery in the 21st century, it hasn't been enough to offset the habitat loss that occurred before that. In other words, panda habitat is both smaller and more fragmented than it was when the animal was first listed as endangered in 1988.
Maybe the animal's status on the IUCN's list bears reconsideration.