The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is an iconic creature that has become one of the faces of nature conservation efforts. Individuals can easily recognize the animal from its black and white fur as well as its large size. It is also common knowledge that giant pandas love to eat bamboo which individuals tend to associate with the animals. The World Wildlife Fund or WWF uses the giant pandas as the logo for the organization. Their efforts along with the impact of the Internet continuously help in bringing awareness to the conditions of endangered animals. The giant panda became a symbol of conservation efforts due to their likable traits along with the concerning decline of their population during the 1980s. Since then, the Chinese governments and conservationists have conducted research and techniques to help protect the remaining species and assist in the repopulation of giant pandas. This research paper will discuss the causes of the giant panda population decline and the various efforts that helped in the continuous recovery of the species.

Population Decline Causes

Giant pandas are unique creatures as they mainly lived in the bamboo forests of Asia. They were previously endemic to the forests of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Burma (Cook, 2018). This limited habitat location for the creatures made them susceptible to various threats which eventually resulted in their critical population decline. The giant panda population experienced habitat loss, natural adaptation difficulty, reproduction difficulties, and lost a portion of the species to poaching (Cook, 2018). These factors greatly affected the species and reduced their population to around 1,000 individual animals during the 1980s. Most of the conservation efforts of local governments and conservationists aimed to address these factors through the development of various solutions.

Habitat Loss

One of the main causes of the giant panda population decline is habitat loss and fragmentation. During the 1980s, farmers logged the giant panda habitat for timber, fuelwood, agricultural land, and infrastructure space (Major Threats, n.d.). These actions led to giant pandas moving away from their natural habitats to inferior environments that do not meet their needs. Giant pandas exclusively eat bamboo which limits their preferred habitats to bamboo forests. As farmers and other individuals conduct deforestation to acquire more operation space, the giant pandas continued to lose their habitats and main source of food. Habitat fragmentation due to highways and railways constructions have caused giant pandas to have limited movement within their natural environment. This limitation disables the creatures to find better environments where they can acquire enough bamboo. The issue once led to 250 giant panda death between 1975 and 1983 (Ellison & Chen, 2018). A bamboo flowering phenomenon occurred during the time which made the bamboo inedible for giant pandas. Bamboo flowering occurs between a bamboo’s 12th and 120th year (Brittanice, n.d.). Due to habitat fragmentation, the giant pandas could not move to other forests which caused them to die of starvation.

Adaptation Difficulty

Giant pandas suffer from adaptation difficulty due to their unique diets and large size. Animals like raccoons, squirrels, and birds have simple dietary requirements that allow them to scavenge and eat a large variety of food. Raccoons frequently dig through human garbage dumps and eat food scraps. Birds, squirrels, and other small animals can freely move within cities and find different sources of food. Alternatively, a giant panda’s diet consists of only bamboo plants. This means that the animal must find an environment where bamboo plants grow in abundance to meet their dietary requirements. Giant pandas do not have the option to live near cities due to their large size and potential threat to civilians. Bamboo plants also tend to grow in specific areas where other animals inhabit. This leads giant pandas to move away from areas with potential competitors (Liu et al, 2020). This forces them to inhabit environments where they may find it difficult to adapt, thus, threatening their population.

Reproduction Difficulty

Reproduction is a key issue in the population decline of giant pandas. While most animals easily find mates during the breeding season, giant pandas tend to be selective. This behavior, along with the solitary habits of the animals, makes it difficult for them to reproduce. This is especially true in captivity where experts observed that a male and female giant panda may refrain from mating despite living in one enclosure (Cook, 2018). With habitat fragmentation limiting the species’ movement, they may find it difficult to find a mate in the wild. This can then further contribute to the population decline of the giant pandas since they have a low population count that will limit their capacity to breed.

Conservationists also face issues regarding giant panda pregnancy. Experts can only identify a pregnant giant panda within a few weeks prior to the birth (Martin-Wintle et al., 2019). This makes it difficult for them to observe the condition of the giant panda and its cub. It can even then lead to poor embryonic development since zookeepers are unaware of a giant panda’s condition. After pregnancy, there is also the issue of captivated female pandas leaving and harming their cubs (Cook, 2018). Experts associate this behavior with the giant panda’s time in captivity. This issue makes it difficult for conservationists to reintroduce female giant pandas in the wild since they may exhibit this behavior and neglect their cubs. Additionally, captivated young giant pandas tend to experience stress during the weaning period. The weaning period is the time when giant panda cubs move away from their mothers which happens around the age of 18 months. While zoos like the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute assist in the weaning period, giant panda cubs still tend to experience stress due to their proximity to their mother. In the wild, giant panda cubs move far away from where they cannot hear and see their mothers. Breeding zoos can find this difficult to replicate in captivity due to their limited space.

Poaching

Poaching is a common issue that leads many animal species to become endangered and extinct. The giant pandas are one of the species that the action has affected. During the late 1800s until 1988, hunters sought giant pandas for their skins and pelts. Individuals from various cultures paid high prices for animal products especially pelts from rare species. As the giant panda population declines, their pelts and skins became more expensive in the black market which motivated poachers to continuously hunt the animals. Poaching eventually subsided when the Chinese government legislated the Wildlife Protection Act in 1988 which banned giant panda hunting and severely punished violators. However, there are still poachers that hunt giant pandas despite the government efforts against the act. There are also instances where giant pandas die due to hunter traps for other animals.

Conservation Efforts for the Giant Pandas

The Chinese government and other conservation groups have conducted various efforts to help the giant pandas after the species’ population declined to around 1,000 individuals. These efforts included extensive scientific research, breeding method development, coexistence practices, and law legislation. A census in 2014 revealed that the giant panda population has increased 17% since 2003 (Rzeszewicz, 2017). Later in September 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature announced that they will reclassify the giant panda’s conservation status from “endangered” to “vulnerable” (Ellison & Chen, 2018). The reclassification is due to the giant panda population reaching more than 1,800 individual animals. The reclassification of the species’ conservations status is a result of the various efforts that conservationists employed to assist in the recovery of the population.

Coexistence with Humans

The nature reserves that giant pandas inhabit also have populated human settlements. This means that the giant pandas share the environment with humans. The Chinese government has established 67 protected areas for giant panda conservation efforts (Wei et al., 2020). Along with this, they promoted healthy practices that will allow the locals and the giant pandas to coexist. The human settlers utilize alternative livelihoods that provide income while avoiding negative effects on the giant pandas. These livelihoods include the selling of local products like honey pepper, walnuts, and potatoes (Solutions, .n.d.). To avoid logging for fuelwood, the settlers utilize biogas from livestock manure to reduce their wood consumption. Local authorities also aim to educate the local population in protecting the giant panda and ensuring that they contribute to the species’ conservation.

Avoiding Large and Medium-Sized Species Grazing

Aside from human settlers, the giant pandas share the nature reserve with other sympatric species. These species include wild boars, takins, black bears, and cattle which have direct and indirect effects on the behavior of giant pandas. According to Liu et al. (2020), large-sized and medium-sized species force giant pandas to move in varying altitudes that are inferior to their previous habitats. This can then lead to poor diets, starvation, difficulty in finding a mate, and accidental deaths. Cattle grazing also has the same effect since the giant pandas prefer areas with no signs of grazing. Additionally, the effects of sympatric species on other animals can have indirect effects on giant panda behavior. For example, takins may decide to move to a different area due to cattle grazing. Giant pandas may populate the new area and the arrival of the takins can then force the giant pandas to relocate. Liu et al (2020) advised that locals in nature reserves should replace large and medium-sized cattle with smaller domestic animals, such as chickens, to lessen the effects of sympatric species on the giant pandas. While the replacement of large and medium-sized cattle may be difficult, it will be necessary for the continuous population recovery of the giant pandas.

Artificial Insemination

Since giant pandas are selective in mate choice, conservationists utilize augmented breeding techniques to increase the successful reproduction of the species. Experts use artificial insemination via cryopreserved spermatozoa to successfully implant sperm inside a female giant panda. This technique has a high success rate which contributed to the surplus animals that conservationists can reintroduce in the wild (Martin-Wintle et al, 2019). However, experts must perform artificial insemination during a narrow period between the peak and decline of urinary estrogen in a female giant panda. Artificial insemination during this period yields higher success rates and a better understanding of the process is essential for the recovery of the species’ population. The use of artificial insemination is also necessary to maintain genetic diversity among the captive population (How Artificial Insemination Helps, 2017). There are other augmented breeding technologies such as Vitro Fertilization and embryo transplants which experts are continuously studying to apply to the giant pandas.

Conclusion

The giant panda population decline was due to habitat loss, adaptation difficulty, reproduction difficulty, and poaching. The species’ unique bamboo diet has caused them to have limited suitable habitats which human activities further affected through large infrastructures. The giant panda’s mating behavior contributed to the difficult repopulation of the species. Additionally, the strict government legislation against poaching did not completely remove poaching as a factor of population decline. However, the continuous conservation efforts of the Chinese governments and conservationists have led to the giant panda population reaching 1,800. This milestone allowed the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to reclassify the giant panda as a vulnerable species. Through coexistence with locals, minimizing cattle grazing, and artificial insemination; the giant panda can experience a continuous population growth that may allow them to achieve a better conservation status.

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