In conservation, success stories can sometimes seem elusive. This is a problem, as constant doom and gloom can potentially undermine support for various projects, or simply give people the impression that it doesn’t matter what we do because the forces of the world conspire against us to inhibit meaningful change. As such, when a genuinely good news story rears its head it ought to be jumped upon and promulgated far and wide. So figures released this week revealing that this famously chaste animal’s population has risen by 17% are definitely something to shout about.
China’s decadal national panda survey found the current wild population to be 1,864 individuals, up from 1,596 ten years ago. The news has been welcomed by conservation organisations, most notably the WWF who use the bear as their logo. This will be seen as a point against those who argue that the millions spent on panda conservation each year could be better used elsewhere, like the TV presenter Chris Packham who famously made the controversial claim in 2009. It shows that with effort, investment, and co-operation, panda conservation is possible and worthwhile.
The news will also be welcomed by the Chinese government, which has implemented policy changes that improve and protect panda habitat and increased the size covered by protected areas by 12.5% since the last survey. These efforts mean that two-thirds of the wild panda population now live in protected areas. Those living outside these areas, however, still face problems with fragmentation and physical barriers preventing their movement, as well as conflicts with socio-economic development goals in rural areas. The huge investment in panda conservation by the Chinese government highlights their importance as political entities.
Their use to improve foreign relations dates back to the seventh century when pandas were sent to Japan. Perhaps most famously, two pandas were given to Richard Nixon during his visit to China in 1972, helping to improve frosty relations during the Cold War. This was a far cry from 1958, when a panda (called Chi-Chi) bound for the US was refused entry because of anti-communist sentiment. Chi-Chi eventually ended up in London Zoo and was, coincidentally, the inspiration for the WWF’s logo.
There has been some criticism regarding the changing methodologies between different surveys, and whether or not China has a vested interest in keeping the species classified as ‘Endangered’ (having a population of less than 2,500) because of the attention and income it brings. But despite these rather cynical caveats, an increase in pandas is good news and one which we should unashamedly celebrate.