China: Panda numbers – not black and white

The Giant Panda is something of a political animal – though not through choice, it must be said – with ‘panda diplomacy,’ the practice of giving pandas to other countries as gifts, having been around since the Tang dynasty, some 1,400 years ago. Where the pandas were once proudly given as gifts to the people of the recipient countries, they now come on a 10 year loan basis, and with a price tag of $1m per year. That’s quite an expensive gift to receive, but the CCP would no doubt argue that the pandas pay for themselves, as punters are happy to pay that little extra to see them. I know that I have shelled out the extra money for the privilege, and would probably do so again, despite my misgivings about zoos in general.

The misconception about pandas, as Jonathan Watts noted in his book When a Billion Chinese Jumpis that they are useless at reproducing. This misconception is only partly true, it turns out, as they are quite happy to reproduce in the wild, albeit slowly, but are no good at it in captivity. The reason for their endangered status, rather than an inability to breed, is the destruction of their habitat in the west and southwest of China, most notably in Sichuan province 四川省, but also in Shaanxi province 陕西省 (home to Xi’an and the Terracotta Army), and Gansu province 甘肃省 (the end of the Silk Road). The Chinese have been conducting surveys of panda numbers every 10 years for the past 40 years, and they have been growing, up by 268 over the past decade, to the figure of 1,864. This should be happy news, but it seems that the panda can’t escape the politics.

The problem lies in the potential manipulation and obfuscation of the survey data, as well as the surveyed areas themselves. Sceptics argue that the previous areas are smaller the one used in this census, and so an apparent increase in numbers is the obvious result. An increase in the panda population also suits the CCP and various conservation groups in China, as it shows that their methods – principally forest protection and restoration in nature reserves – are effective. The importance of maintaining face is paramount in China, and subtle manipulation of the census results through widening the areas surveyed would enable to CCP to take credit an the increase in population.

The methods used in the survey have also come under scrutiny: previous surveys searched for bamboo shards in panda droppings in order to compare bite sizes – which in itself is an inexact science that leads to fewer numbers – whereas this most recent survey has used DNA genotyping from mucus in droppings; this form of surveying will usually result in higher numbers than the traditional method, and the margin for error was not calculated by the Chinese census takers. With the methodology itself open to interpretation, it is easy to understand why conservationists and journalists are not quick to accept the results.

Increasing numbers of pandas also means that their ‘endangered’ status could be downgraded to ‘vulnerable’, which can occur if there are more than 2,500 animals in the wild, and that population is increasing. Does the panda need to maintain its ‘endangered’ status to retain its place as one of the most popular animals worldwide? It is certainly a symbol of conservation, and indeed a symbol of China, one that can be exported around the world with relative ease, and is one of China’s few sources of ‘soft power’. However, climate projections suggest that pandas will remain ‘endangered’, as their habitat is still under threat. Indeed, pandas suffer from habitat fragmentation through roads, railways, dams, and mines, that has isolated populations in 33 different areas, with 22 of these population groups having less than 30 pandas each. These groups are at a high risk of extinction, and despite the creation of nature reserves, the continual construction of infrastructure has created impassable physical barriers that the pandas cannot cross. The balancing act between man and nature, one that in China tips ever further towards man, needs to be readdressed.

But it seems that in China, not even the giant panda can stop progress.

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