16 February 201

Dire warning over the future of the great panda

By Michael McCarthy, Environment Correspondent

The giant panda might bethe world's best-known endangered species, but China'sefforts to protect the animalare not preventing its decline, says the World Wide Fund for Nature.

The organisation, whose panda logo made the animal the most prominent international symbol of conservation, paints a gloomy picture in a report published today to coincide with WWF's 40th anniversary. Although unable to give up-to-date numbers of pandas in the wild – there are thought to be about 1,000 – the report says habitat destruction and illegal hunting are continuing in the panda's mountainous forest home in western China.

The reasons, the report alleges with a frankness unlikely to be welcome in Beijing where sensitivity to international criticism is acute, are to be found in weaknesses and under-funding in China's conservation effort itself.

Failings in the network of 33 panda reserves the Chinese have set up are "the root causes of threats to the panda and of biodiversity loss in China", says the report, which is written by Dr Lu Zhi, a former co-ordinator of the WWF's Panda Programme in China, and Elizabeth Kemf, the WWF's species conservation information manager. The reserves are bedevilled by conflicts with economic development, lack of clear objectives, poor management, low staff morale, insufficient policy support at a national level and a dearth of scientific information, the report says.

Furthermore, the captive breeding programme of pandas in the world's zoos has done nothing to restore their declining numbers in the bamboo forests where they live. In 1999, only eight of the 126 animals in captivity were involved in breeding, and no captive-bred
panda has ever been released into the wild.

The WWF is calling on the Chinese authorities to set up a long-delayed special fund for the nature reserve system, which was originally envisaged in the early 1990s with an annual budget of $63m (£43.5m); current Chinese spending on the panda is a mere $5m a year.

It also wants a national panda action plan to be drawn up, a crucial feature of which would be "panda corridors" of forest between the increasingly isolated reserves.

The panda's plight highlights the continuing struggle between human beings and wildlife, said Stuart Chapman, who is the head of WWF-UK's Species Programme.

From today, happiness will be with you!
Grey Blocker
The end of graying hair!

"The panda is known world-wide as a symbol for conservation, yet its fame hides its small population," he said. "The species is extremely vulnerable to illegal logging and poaching. The Chinese government must create forest corridors to link isolated panda populations and
provide more funds for existing reserves or the panda will remain on the brink of extinction."

In Sichuan province, where the greatest number cling to survival, suitable habitat occupied by pandas was halved between 1974 and 1989. A survey in 1999 in one county in Sichuan revealed that since 1987 there had been a 30 per cent decrease in panda habitat.

Dr Lu said: "Habitat fragmentation is especially dangerous for pandas, as they must adjust to the life cycles of bamboos, which flower and die periodically. Small, isolated populations, whose diet consists almost entirely of various bamboo species found in high mountain areas, face a risk of inbreeding. This could lead to reduced resistance to disease, less adaptability to environmental change and a decrease in reproductive rates."

After a logging ban in 1998, monitoring showed a substantial increase in illegal hunting in some counties, probably as a source to replace lost income. Poachers are still active, but there is no concrete data on the scale of poaching.

The report underlines the failure of the captive breeding programme in the world's zoos, many of which are extremely keen to acquire pandas for status, publicity and a guaranteed rise in visitor numbers.

After 1958, crowds flocked to London Zoo to see Chi-Chi, a gift to Britain from China, and the nation followed long but unsuccessful attempts to have her mate with An-An, a panda from Moscow Zoo. A similar saga followed after 1974 with the pandas Chia-Chia and
Ching-Ching, gifts from the Chinese government to Edward Heath, who was Prime Minister. They also failed to mate: Ching-Ching, the female, died cubless in 1985. Chia-Chia was moved to Mexico Zoo in 1988, where he fathered two cubs before he died in 1991. They
remained the zoo's main attraction for many years.

Of the 497 pandas kept in captivity between 1936 and 1999, only 66 have been involved in breeding. They have produced about 224 cubs, of which about 100 have survived for more than a year.

Mr Chapman said: "The reality is that more pandas are dying than are being born, and the captive breeding programme is not making any contribution to wild populations. It is unsustainable."

The giant panda is the rarest member of the bear family. Although it has a carnivore ancestry, its diet consists almost entirely of bamboo shoots: it can eat more than 100lb (45kg) a day.

manuskin active