Pandas under pressure

A new study of historic satellite data reveals that pandas have less habitat than when they were first listed endangered 30 years ago, with scattered populations holding out in isolated pockets of bamboo forest.

Things appeared to be looking up for the world's favorite threatened species. China has pumped money into protecting its prized giant pandas, and last year the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) downgraded its status from "endangered" to "vulnerable."

But a new study warns against complacency, revealing that pandas are under growing pressure from habitat loss, tourism and climate change.

A team of scientists used geospatial technologies and remote sensing data to map human development encroaching on the last bamboo forests where these iconic beasts survive.

"What my colleagues and I wanted to know was how the panda's habitat has changed over the last four decades," said Stuart L. Pimm, one of the study's authors, "because the extent and connectivity of a species' habitat is also a major factor in determining its risk of extinction."

Fenced in by roads

Comparing satellite imagery dating back to 1976, they found that the giant panda's habitat had shrunk and become increasingly fragmented over the last four decades.

The research team included Jianguo Liu of Michigan State University and Zhuyan Ouyang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who have studied the panda's geographical range since 2001.

"The most obvious changes in this region since Professor Liu and his colleague Professor Zhiyun Ouyang first visited it together in 2001 have been the increase and improvement in roads and other infrastructure," Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University in the United States, said in a press release.

"These have been the major factors in fragmenting the habitat. There was nearly three times the density of roads in 2013 than in 1976."

China Baby Panda im Chengdu Research Base

With so few pandas left in the wild conservation programs are also focused on captive breeding

They found that the remaining panda population is split into 30 isolated groups, 18 of which consist of fewer that 10 animals - meaning there is a high risk of local extinction.

A complex picture

The study also questions the data that changed the IUCN status, which found an overall increase in the giant panda's overall population. The study found the methods and territories studied were not consistent between assessments.

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The scientists say the picture is a complex one, with some encouraging signs. Overall, the pandas' habitat fell five percent between 1976 and 2001, but individual patches supporting the endangered animals shrunk by an average of 24 percent.

There has been a small increase in overall territory since 2001, the team said, with a ban on commercial logging and new nature reserves since 1996 having a positive impact. But these small gains were well short of offsetting the habitat loss over the previous two decades.

Panda were first listed as an endangered species in 1988.

Call for habitat corridors

Growing tourism to protected areas, changes to forest management regulations that result in logging, and climate change, which could alter the distribution of the bamboo they feed on, also threaten the panda's survival, the study says.

The scientists say the most urgent action needed is to establish corridors of habitat to connect isolated, vulnerable populations of pandas.

"Conservation is a dynamic process with humans and nature in a constant push and pull to survive and thrive, so new solutions always are in demand," Liu said.



Meng Meng and Jiao Qing appear to have made themselves at home in Berlin, where measures have been taken to ensure their surroundings are to their liking. That includes lots of bamboo, a favorite food of the black-and-white bears.


Warm welcome

Meng Meng and Jiao Qing received a warm welcome from Chancellor Merkel at an official opening ceremony on Wednesday. The Berlin Zoo has created a special Panda Garden habitat for the giant pandas in the hope of making them feel at home in the German capital. Berlin is the only zoo in Germany to house panda bears.


On loan from China

In Germany on official business just ahead of the G20 summit in Hamburg, China's President Xi Jinping met with Merkel before taking part in the official ceremony. The giant pandas are on loan from China after Germany struck a deal two years ago to secure their addition to the Berlin Zoo.


Panda diplomacy

Despite the presence of two of the world's most powerful leaders, the panda bears stole the show. Merkel said the long-awaited bears were "two very nice diplomats" which serve as "special ambassadors between our two nations."


Peek-a-boo pandas

Visitors to the Berlin Zoo will be able to see the highly-anticipated panda bears beginning Thursday.


Panda babies?

While there are high hopes that they may mate, any offspring produced in Berlin will need to be returned to China once old enough to survive without its mother.


At home in the Panda Garden

The new additions to the Berlin Zoo seem to be feeling right at home in their newly renovated Panda Garden. The last panda resident at the zoo, Bao Bao, died in 2012, so his home had to be updated for the happy pair, the only pandas in Germany. They are on loan from China for 15 years.


Royal reception

Crowds eagerly awaited the arrival of the two giant pandas when their plane touched down at Schönefeld Airport on June 24. The long-awaited bears received a royal reception on the runway before being brought to their new home in the Berlin Zoo.


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