Giant pandas no longer endangered, China says

Quinn Murphy
Story by Quinn Murphy and CBC Kids News • 2021-10-22 06:00

Bear species classified as vulnerable


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What animal do you think of when you hear the term endangered species? If you answered the panda, you’re not alone.  

The iconic black and white bear native to China is a symbol of conservation for many people, even serving as the logo for the World Wildlife Fund since 1961.

In July, Chinese officials announced that giant pandas are no longer considered  endangered — just vulnerable.

This is good news for pandas, but the bear species is still at risk.

China’s classification now matches IUCN  

This announcement comes five years after the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the giant panda’s status from endangered to vulnerable. 

The IUCN manages the Red List of Threatened Species, which is considered to be the world’s most comprehensive list of species facing extinction.

Liang Liang the panda (right) lives in a zoo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has had three cubs. Conservation experts say it’s rare for a panda in captivity to have so many cubs. Nuan Nuan (left) is her first born, pictured back in 2016.  (Image credit: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images) (Image credit: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)

The IUCN officially classified giant pandas as endangered in 1990, when the panda population was just 1,114 individuals. 

In 2016, the population was thought to be around 1,184 individuals. That’s when the IUCN bumped the status of the species up to vulnerable.

China disagreed with the reclassification.

At the time, Chinese officials said they feared that the vulnerable status would make people think the panda wasn’t still in danger, possibly hurting conservation efforts.

Why did China change the panda’s status to vulnerable now?

As of Jan. 3, there were 633 pandas in captive breeding programs around the world, according to Chinese officials. That’s double the number from 2016.

Captive breeding is when pandas are kept in zoos and sanctuaries while humans try to help them have more panda cubs to increase population numbers.

According to the IUCN, the most recent population survey estimates that panda numbers are resting at around 2,060 individuals.

This new reclassification is “another sign of hope” for pandas, said Colby Loucks, the vice-president for wildlife conservation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The World Wildlife Fund’s logo, left, was inspired by a panda named Chi-Chi, right, which founders of the organization saw on a visit to the London Zoo. According to a WWF spokesperson, the founders chose the panda because it was a strong symbol for conservation. (Image credit: Gregor Fischer/DPA/AFP/via Getty Images, William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Why were giant pandas endangered in the first place?

Panda populations started to go down in the early 20th century because of hunting and habitat loss.  

Different groups of pandas were split apart and became isolated from each other because humans cleared the bamboo forests where pandas lived to build roads, buildings and farms.

According to the WWF, a panda’s daily diet is almost entirely made up of bamboo. Most bear species are omnivores, meaning they eat meat and plants. The pandas' mostly vegan diet was long thought to be an evolutionary mistake, but a study published in 2019 by a Chinese conservation biologist found that their bamboo diet was as rich in protein as that of meat-eating animals like wolves. (Image credit: Teh Eng Koon/AFP/Getty Images)

Being separated made it harder for the bears to find mates, causing a drop in the number of cubs being born.

Plus, the loss of bamboo forests made it more difficult for pandas to find food.

Thirty years of effort 

It’s taken 30 years of dedicated, long-term conservation efforts to get the species back on track.

Those efforts include captive breeding programs, restoring panda habitat and the creation of 50 giant panda reserves in China.

Many experts agree that the hard work has paid off.

Vulnerable doesn’t mean the panda is totally safe

Unfortunately, even though being “vulnerable” is better than being “endangered,” pandas are still at risk of going extinct.

According to the IUCN, at least 35 per cent of the panda’s bamboo habitat could be lost in the next 80 years because of climate change.

Plus, many pandas still live on land that is at risk of being destroyed by deforestation.

Some experts say that the Chinese government should focus more on restoring and protecting wild habitats and less on captive breeding.

Three-year-old panda Hua Yan was released into the wild at the Liziping National Nature Reserve in China in 2016. Hua Yan was sent out alongside another panda named Zhang Meng as part of a program to improve the wild panda population. It was the first time two pandas were released at the same time. (Image credit: Zhang Jian/Chengdu Economic Daily/VCG via Getty Images)

The panda is a successful case

Although panda populations remain vulnerable, there is reason for optimism. 

“China’s successful conservation of giant pandas shows what can be achieved when political will and science join forces,” the WWF said in a statement on July 9.

If that kind of co-operation continues, there could be more good news on the horizon for the species.

Have more questions? We'll look into it for you. Email us at cbckidsnews@cbc.ca.


TOP IMAGE CREDIT: Teh Eng Koon/AFP/Getty Images

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About the Contributor

Quinn Murphy
Quinn Murphy
CBC Kids News Contributor
Quinn Murphy lives in Vancouver, B.C., with her parents, sisters and dog, Massi. She loves to spend her days photographing and writing about animals. One day she hopes to make a difference in wildlife conservation.

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