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article imageGiant panda populations have grown, but 223 still face high risks

By Megan Hamilton     Mar 2, 2015 in Environment
The good news? China's population of wild giant pandas has increased by nearly 17 percent in the last decade.
The bad news? Of these wild pandas, 223 are at high risk of not surviving, an official survey on the endangered bears has found.
This troubling number has wildlife officials concerned. The pandas in question live in 24 isolated populations in the wild and account for 12 percent of the total population of these endangered bears, Xinhua reports.
These pandas are living "at high risk for survival and the situation is still alarming," the survey, conducted by the State Forestry Administration (SFA), reported Saturday.
Due to geographic isolation and human interference, the entire wild population is fragmented into 33 isolated populations. Out of that number, there are 22 populations consisting of fewer than 30 giant pandas and they are on the brink of extinction, especially those populations with fewer than 10 individuals. These populations are considered to be at extremely high risk of extinction, the survey found.
The census found 1,864 giant pandas living in the wild at the end of 2013, and this is an increase of 268 bears since the last survey was conducted in 2003, an article in Digital Journal reported yesterday.
Two other isolated populations in south Minshan and in the Daxiangling mountains are also imperiled due to their small size, low reproduction rate, and the damage caused by the devastating Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, China.org reports.
"There are outstanding conflicts between the protection of the giant pandas and their habitats, and local socioeconomic development," Chen Fengxue, deputy head of the SFA, said at a press conference.
Habitat fragmentation is the most serious threat facing giant pandas, and the survey identified 319 hydropower plants, 1,339 km of roads, 268.7 km of high-voltage transmission lines, 984 residential areas, 479 mines and 25 tourist attractions as major disturbances to the bear's habitat.
Complicating this serious situation are some geographical and managerial inconsistencies, and breeding center exchanges are unfortunately failing to increase genetic diversity and resiliency of these magnificent bears, China.org reports.
Lack of funding has also held back protection achievements for the giant panda, the survey also found.
Research indicates that the giant panda evolved for over three million years as a separate lineage than that of other bears, the World Wildlife Fund reports. The earliest known panda is the pygmy giant panda (Ailuropoda microta), which at about one meter (just over 3 ft.) in length, is smaller than the modern giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), which grows to around 1.5 m (just under 5 ft.) long. The first skull of this ancient panda was wound in southern China and is estimated to be two million years old.
The range of these ancestral bears was quite wide, and ran from much of eastern and southern China as far north as Beijing. They also ranged into northern Myanmar and northern Vietnam. Pandas still occasionally range into these areas today.
In the hopes of helping modern pandas, the SFA plans to expedite the release of a conservation plan and to increase funding to support a series of conservation programs, Xinhuanet reports.
The organization is also going to tighten related legislation, step up captive reproduction efforts, improve systems that monitor and patrol the areas that the bears frequent, and strengthen research and education to improve professional skills.
For a dose of adorable, watch these newborns gain their characteristic coloring:
More about Giant Panda, 223 face high risks, giant panda populations, IUCN red list, State Forestry Administration
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