The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) downgraded the giant panda on Sept 4 from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on its Red List of threatened species, as the wild stocks of the species have been recovering.
By the end of 2013, China had 1,864 giant pandas in the wild, 67 percent more than the number between 1985 and 1988. The number in captivity has also increased, from 164 to 375.
Yet the State Forestry Administration said the giant panda is still under threat, and its habitats remain fragmented, so it is too early to declare it “vulnerable” rather than “endangered”.
Some media organizations have described the diverging views on the giant panda as a quarrel between the two bodies, but this ignores the fact both the IUCN, which is based in Switzerland, and the administration agree that the species needs protection, and that they differ only on the degree of threat it faces.
IUCN’s Red List has seven categories. After “extinct” and “extinct in the wild”, “endangered” is the most serious, with “vulnerable” the next grade down. As such, the change made by the union is not a big difference, as vulnerable species also need special protection.
Several benchmarks are used to classify a species as endangered in the Red List, such as whether there are fewer than 250 adults in the wild, their area of distribution is less than 5,000 square kilometers and their stocks have been dropping sharply for the past 10 years.
If a species meets one of these yardsticks, it falls into the endangered category.
Based on these criteria, the giant panda is no longer endangered. The main reason is because China has halted poaching and restored the animal’s natural habitats, which has received praise from IUCN. China is also proud of that achievement, but the State Forestry Administration is more concerned about the difficulties ahead.
Giant pandas continue to face two major threats: Fragmented habitats make it difficult for those in the wild to mate, while climate change is expected to reduce bamboo forests, their only source of food, by about 35 percent.
Therefore, even though IUCN has downgraded the threat level, we cannot underestimate the difficulties ahead for conservation. In fact, China has taken several measures such as establishing and enlarging special forest areas for conservation.
The problem is, the giant panda is just one of the hundreds of threatened species in China. Incomplete data show more than 120 species listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species are from China, and more than 400 are listed in the country’s Red Data Book of Endangered Animals. The endangered lists of provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions also contain the names of hundreds of other animals.
The giant panda is perhaps the most fortunate among threatened species, because it is considered a national symbol and therefore enjoys special protection. China’s conservation efforts include earmarking natural protection areas and strict implementation of laws banning trade in the species or its body parts.
Other threatened species do not enjoy such protection. Some of them, such as the white-flag dolphin, which is found only in the Yangtze River, are under greater threat than the giant panda, but receive far less protection.
China needs to take comprehensive measures to save all threatened species. To do that, it should invest more resources in conservation projects and implement stricter laws on animal and habitat protection.
The author is deputy editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia magazine and a former researcher in medical science. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.