The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is carrying out a reassessment of the giant panda and many suspect that it may not be endangered any more.
This news has caused a bit of a scare online, with many uninformed, but well-meaning people, questioning the move. Firstly, the assessment is still underway and the IUCN has made no decision on the status of the panda, meaning that all reports are strictly unfounded. The IUCN are actually quite clever and so will surely take all the various arguments into account, after all that is really the idea behind the IUCN. Secondly, as I wrote in a blog post once, there seems to be a huge gulf in understanding regarding endangered species. They are not simply “endangered” or “numerous”. If the panda were to be re-classified it would become “Vulnerable” which still means that the species is in trouble. Many worry that if they were downgraded then China may do less to protect the panda but this is probably not going to happen. China has its own animal laws and, for once, the law actually favours the animals and gives pandas the highest protection status. Even if the panda was re-classified, Chinese law would still fiercely protect them with the minimum penalty for killing a panda being 10 years in jail, though in some cases the crime will carry the death penalty.
The panda has been a strange sort of conservation story. There were only about 1000 giant pandas in the wild in 1995 but as of 2013, when the last published survey was done, there were about 1900. The Chinese authorities say that the panda habitat has expanded but this is criticised by some who claim that, although the habitat is bigger overall, it is too fragmented to be useable by pandas. Pandas also have the most notorious captive breeding programme in the world and, despite the increase in wild pandas, China still intends to build more captive breeding sanctuaries despite only releasing 5 captive born pandas into the wild in their entire history. The researchers argue that they now know what they are doing and can make a difference whilst others point out the political leverage a panda can have. The pandas in Edinburgh zoo are currently on loan from China at a price of around six million pounds for 10 years. Once you factor in several hundred other loan programmes you can see why breeding pandas may be encouraged in China, especially if the money gained is actually used for conservation. Many people still mistrust the Chinese, after all 80% of wildlife crime occurs in or due to China, but the panda has a sort of cult status in China and although the government may not use the prettiest methods, such as captive breeding, they surely would never allow the panda to go extinct on their watch.
Critics argue that if the pandas are increasing in the wild then why do we need to breed them in captivity? If the money was put towards habitat restoration it could benefit the pandas along with other, more endangered (but less cute) species. They also argue that many of the pandas currently live in forests which are not protected and thus the money could be put to a better use.
The overall point here is that changing the status of the panda is only done if the panda meets the requirements of the next status level. If the panda has increased sufficiently in number then it status should be changed, we can’t just keep it endangered out of a misguided sense of nostalgia. The panda assessment has been running for over a year and any decision made is likely to be the right one. As we know there are many more endangered animals than just the panda that we could focus on, though it is certainly true that saving the panda’s habitat will also save many other animals due to an overlap in habitat. Either way, to criticise the IUCN for a decision they haven’t made, based on research they haven’t published, seems more than a touch unfair.