China has recently announced plans to create a giant panda reserve that’s three times the size of Yellowstone National Park in the USA. The 27,134-square-kilometre area spans three Chinese provinces and will link up 67 existing reserves on six isolated mountain ranges.
An estimated 1,864 wild pandas currently live in these areas. It’s hoped that the new reserve will make mating easier for these animals and boost their wild population. By joining the existing reserves together, it will also enrich the gene pool and be a huge conservation boost for these long-endangered bears.
The Bank of China is contributing a huge portion of the park’s funding, at the equivalent of US$1.5 billion. It’s expected to be completed over the next five years and China hopes that wild panda numbers will increase to 2,000 by 2025.
Why is it being created?
Since the 1970s, the giant panda has been at the forefront of conservation efforts in the country. Once widespread throughout southern China, the wild population had significantly declined due to human actions. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the giant pandas biggest threats, confining these animals into small, isolated areas of the country.
In addition, giant pandas have a short breeding season as females are only fertile once a year for 2-4 days on average. This means that their numbers aren’t able to recover quickly and, in their fragmented habitats, the chances of inbreeding have risen. However, by creating the new reserve, it’s hoped the wild population will increase and help safeguard this species’ future.
Thanks to dedicated conservation efforts, the giant panda population rose by 17% between 2004 and 2014. This led to the IUCN reclassifying these animals as vulnerable rather than endangered. However, their long-term future isn’t secure.
Giant pandas have evolved to depend almost entirely on bamboo and eat from 12-38 kilograms a day. Climate change is expected to shift where bamboo can grow and, over the next 80 years, more than a third of panda habitat may be wiped out as it becomes too hot for bamboo growth.
Other benefits of the reserve
Besides the giant panda, the new reserve will help protect around 8,000 other animals and plants. Many of these are also endangered, including the takin, golden monkey, crested ibis and red panda. Therefore, the new reserve will protect an entire ecosystem and its biodiversity, and is supported by scientists and conservationists alike.
It will also ensure that just one authority is responsible for protecting these bears. The park will straddle the Gansu, Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces in south-central China. Currently, when the animals cross these boundaries they fall under different jurisdictions. However their management will be easier when under one authority.
Impact to human settlements
The new reserve is unusual in terms of its complexity and scale, with approximately 170,000 people currently living within its boundaries. Many of these will have to relocate due to the threats they pose by livestock grazing and bamboo harvesting. Around 1.3 million people were relocated to create the Three Gorges dam and so this process isn’t new to China.
In other cases, local people may need to adapt to live under the reserve’s new restrictions that protect its habitat. Many families have lived here for generations and it’s thought the government will allocate part of its budget to developing an ecotourism industry. Residents will potentially be offered new jobs either building infrastructure or as tourist guides.
Where can I see giant pandas in China?
The majority of panda research bases in China are located in the Sichuan province. Known as the ‘panda capital of the world’, Chengdu is home to the most important conservation centres. This makes the city the best choice for travellers hoping to visit the giant panda.
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is the most popular centre and a 40-minute drive from the city. Founded in the 1980s, this centre’s captive panda population has risen from just six individuals to over 50 including cubs. The centre aims to recreate their natural environment and consists of 92 acres of bamboo forest, rivers and rocky outcrops.
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