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Preserving more habitat for China's giant pandas is having a giant payoff, study says

Preserving more habitat for China's giant pandas is having a giant payoff, study says
A giant panda in China's Foping National Nature Reserve. Protecting pandas would be extremely cost-effective — so much so that it might make sense to expand current panda reserves, according to a new study. (Fuwen Wei)

Saving the giant panda from extinction isn’t just good for the bears — it’s good for the bottom line too, a new analysis by an international team of scientists shows.

The results, published in the journal Current Biology, highlight the economic benefits that they say go hand in hand with environmental conservation.

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“Our analyses indicate that further investment in panda protection can be a beneficial strategy for both people and pandas,” the study authors wrote.

Giant pandas, known officially as Ailuropoda melanoleuca, are the rarest of the bear species. They make their homes in the mountainous bamboo forests of western China. With their fuzzy faces, black-and-white markings and toddling gait, they may also be the most beloved — long lines are known to form at the panda exhibits in American zoos, which often set up “panda cams” for viewers to check in on the animals from afar.

But pandas have fallen on hard times in recent decades, thanks largely to human encroachment. In 1980, their habitat covered 40,599 square kilometers; by 1990, it had been cut to just 12,340. This is a major threat to the bears in large part because bamboo, their main food source, is so low in nutrients that each bear must roam a lot of land in order to find and eat enough of it.

In that single decade, their numbers plummeted from 2,459 to just 1,112. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the giant panda an endangered species in 1984, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List followed suit in 1990.

Panda habitat had not just shrunk — it became fragmented, making it harder for the bears to move to new areas to find food and seek mates. This is a particular problem for pandas, who breed infrequently, making it much more difficult for their populations to recover.

Chinese officials have made significant efforts to save the panda from extinction. They’ve established more panda reserves and increased the reserve area 3 1/2-fold from 1980 to 2010.

Panda numbers gradually began to recover, hitting 1,596 in 2000 and 1,864 in 2010. In 2016, the IUCN Red List reclassified the panda from endangered to vulnerable.

“It is clear that society’s investment has started to pay off in terms of panda population recovery,” wrote the study authors, a team from China and several other countries.

Panda habitat and numbers are still well below where they were in the 1980s, and even their relative step away from extinction has come with its own critics, the scientists said.

“Some journalists have suggested that it would be best to let the panda go extinct,” the study authors wrote.

By contrast, the researchers pointed to many benefits that pandas bring to the world’s proverbial table.

“Its unrivaled public appeal translates into support for conservation funding and policy, including a tax on foreign visitors to support its conservation,” they wrote.

In addition, they said, the biodiversity of Chinese panda reserves was “among the highest in the temperate world.”

“The panda is thus also an umbrella species — protecting panda habitat also protects other species,” they wrote.

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For this paper, the scientists sought to calculate the economic value that panda conservation generates, using a framework called the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services.

In order to protect giant pandas, the government must protect their forests, which provide a host of often-underappreciated services to the communities that live in and around them. For example, forests allow for the growing of crops and the grazing of animals, store and clean fresh water, and supply firewood, lumber and many useful plants. They manage storm runoff, sequester carbon in the ground and help prevent erosion.

The pandas themselves also hold enormous cultural value that has risen meteorically in recent decades among Chinese residents, the study authors pointed out.

“From 1980 to 2010, the cultural values of pandas ... and their reserves almost doubled, largely driven by human population increases,” they wrote. “Tourism use values grew rapidly, rising 500-fold from 1980 to 2010.”

Taking all of these factors into account, the scientists calculated a median economic value of about $632 per hectare per year for the ecosystem services provided by these forests. Extended over the forested area in the 67 panda reserves in China, and added to the estimated $709 million from pandas’ cultural value, this comes out to a total of approximately $2.6 billion in 2010.

Keep in mind, the costs of preserving panda habitat at current levels come to about $255 million — meaning that the economic benefits outweigh the costs at a ratio of about 10 to 1. The study authors said that including the global cultural value of the animals would increase the total economic value to $6.9 billion per year — or about 27 times the cost of habitat preservation.

The researchers also noted that the investment in panda habitat has improved the living conditions of local residents. They pointed to data from the Chinese Statistical Yearbook showing that the annual income in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, which sit next to panda reserves, rose by an average of 56% from 2000 to 2010. Farmers in counties within these provinces that were next to the panda reserves saw their annual incomes rise by 64%, on average.

“Thus, proximity to panda reserves produces an 8% better increase in annual farmer incomes relative to the provinces as a whole,” they wrote.

The findings provide a promising example of how conservation efforts can pay off, and they could be applied to many other threatened and endangered species, the study authors said.

The next step, they added, is to continue to make panda habitats less fragmented, improve areas that have been degraded and protect them from livestock and other threats.

“With a large proportion of panda habitat still remaining outside the Chinese government’s protected area system, an expansion of the reserve system would ensure that the panda will not need to be reclassified as Endangered once more,” the authors wrote.

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