If you ask some wildlife conservationists, it’s time to break out the celebratory bamboo and digest the chunks for 14 hours at a go.
Giant pandas are no longer endangered, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, the nongovernmental organization that maintains the authoritative list of the world’s rarest species. Officially, the panda is now “vulnerable” — a species still at risk, but a step back from the brink of extinction.
But the Chinese government is not yet ready to agree with the new classification.
The IUCN announced the panda’s status change in Hawaii on Sunday, in an update to the organization’s Red List. That list contains nearly 83,000 species, of which nearly three in 10 are threatened with extinction. The panda was not the only animal to get a status update. A sharp decrease in an Eastern gorilla subspecies, as The Washington Post reported, led to a classification of “critically endangered.” Species are classified on a spectrum from “least concern” to “extinct,” a system the IUCN uses to inform and influence government wildlife policies.
“The improved status confirms that the Chinese government’s efforts to conserve this species are effective,” the IUCN said in a statement. When the IUCN first classified pandas in 1965, the organization listed the species as “very rare.” Pandas would remain rare — or, in newer terminology, endangered — until the animal’s most recent update.
Marco Lambertini, the director general of the WWF, said in a statement, “The recovery of the panda shows that when science, political will and engagement of local communities come together, we can save wildlife and also improve biodiversity.” The panda is particularly dear to the WWF, as the wildlife conservation organization has used the large black-and-white mammal as its symbol for more than five decades.
In the mountains of southwestern China, the only remaining wild habitat for the panda, the Chinese government recently established dozens of wildlife reserves. The pandas, for their part, seem to appreciate the buffer zones; Sichuan and the other provinces surrounding the mountains are some of China’s most rapidly developing. China has stepped up arrests for poaching pandas to the point that the pelt trade is nigh extinct. By best estimates, the population appears to be slowly increasing, and the animals have been spotted in areas that were panda-less for decades.
But it is difficult to count the animals with absolute confidence — a widely used method relies on identifying individuals from tooth marks in bamboo, extracted from scat. China has surveyed wild pandas four times since 1974. In the third survey, completed in 2004, China found bite-mark evidence for 1,596 animals; a decade later, the most recent survey documented 1,864 pandas in an effort that required 60,000 person-days and took place across some 17,000 wooded square miles.
Complicating the matter is the fact that biologists have criticized the accuracy of comparing those surveys. As Nature magazine pointed out in 2015, the latest survey took place over a larger area. And although DNA testing can give more accurate panda counts, fecal samples collected in the fourth survey were “not sufficiently fresh” to provide genetic material, according to the IUCN.
This uncertainty is why some experts and Chinese officials are not celebrating the IUCN update.
Marc Brody, an adviser to China’s Wolong Nature Reserve, told National Geographic that “it is too early to conclude that pandas are actually increasing in the wild — perhaps we are simply getting better at counting wild pandas.”
“If we downgrade their conservation status, or neglect or relax our conservation work, the populations and habitats of giant pandas could still suffer irreversible loss and our achievements would be quickly lost,” China’s State Forestry Administration, which spearheads the giant panda survey, said in a statement to the Associated Press on Monday. “Therefore, we’re not being alarmist by continuing to emphasize the panda species’ endangered status.”
Even in making the change, the IUCN acknowledged the precariousness of the update. Climate change threatens the current abundance of bamboo, the panda’s staple food. Over the next 80 years, an estimated 35 percent of these forests could disappear. If so, the panda is apt to be officially endangered once again.