To protect giant pandas, China must preserve old-growth forests, study says

Old trees may be ideal places for pandas to raise their cubs.
Old trees may be ideal places for pandas to raise their cubs. (Gu Dao C/imaginechina For The Washington Post)
Monday, January 17, 2011; 7:22 PM

Endangered pandas choose to nestle in old-growth forests

A major study suggests that if China wants to save its remaining pandas, it should preserve old-growth forests. The study shows that pandas prefer old trees, perhaps because they contain large cavities that can be used as maternity dens.

Giant pandas are famously endangered, with no more than 3,000 individuals left in the wild, all of them in China. Between 1999 and 2003, the Chinese State Forestry Administration carried out a detailed survey of the bears' habitats that covered 70 percent of their range. Fuwen Wei of the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing and colleagues have now gone through the data to find out what their favorite haunts are.

Most of the areas where pandas lived had two characteristics. First, they had plenty of bamboo, which is what you would expect because pandas eat little else. But the panda habitats also tended to be old-growth forest.

What is so great about old-growth forests?

According to the study, one possibility is that the bamboo plants growing under old trees are more nutritious than those found under young trees. There is some evidence for this: Pandas like tall bamboo stems, and clear-cutting leads to shorter ones. The other possibility is that when caring for their young, female pandas hide away in dens, often inside hollow trees. Old-growth trees are larger, so they can contain larger cavities. It has been suggested that the number of suitable dens is a crucial limiting factor on panda breeding.

Will pandas get the old forests they need? China had a logging ban in place since 1998, but it has now expired. However, an official statement last month said that some areas, at least, will remain protected. The country has embarked on a massive reforestation program.

- Michael Marshall,

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