The giant panda is no longer considered an endangered species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Instead, their slow growth in numbers means they are now considered “vulnerable.”
Eight years after its last assessment, the IUCN updated its “red list” of species at risk of going extinct at the IUCN World Conservation Congress currently being held in Hawaii. The first list was released in 1963 and today contains close to 83,000 species, of which nearly a third are considered threatened.
“The story tells us conservation works,” said the IUCN’s Director General Inger Andersen, who added that if people really invest in conservation, they can change the fates of at-risk species.
The giant panda has long been a poster child for animal protection efforts. The animals once freely roamed the woods of eastern and southern China, but due to overhunting and habitat loss, there were only about 1,000 animals left by the 1980s. To make matters worse, the animals are notoriously uninterested in mating, although research centers in China have become increasingly adept at encouraging them to pair up.
In a previous interview with Sixth Tone, a panda breeding specialist at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda said that the center had shifted away from “breeding as many pandas as possible,” adding that panda handlers had become so confident in their abilities that they only allowed the fittest animals to reproduce. According to China’s fourth national giant panda survey, conducted in 2015, decades of conservation efforts have helped increase the number of wild pandas to a total of 1,864.
On Monday, the State Forestry Administration (SFA), which oversees animal conservation efforts in China, released a statement obtained by Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper. The SFA believes the downgrading of the giant panda’s conservation status to “vulnerable” to be premature, and says the relabeling could mislead people to think that conservation efforts can be dialed down.
According to the SFA, many wild pandas live separated into small groups, most of which are made up of fewer than 10 individuals. The fact that these groups don’t interact is detrimental to the gene pool, and thus to the health of the species as a whole.
Wang Dajun, an assessor for IUCN and a researcher at Peking University’s School of Life Sciences, told Sixth Tone that the relabeling doesn’t mean conservation efforts should be scaled back. Rather, it is only a reflection of the fact that their habitats have improved, said Wang, who added that he still believes China can do more to protect the panda.
Xie Yan, a zoologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Sixth Tone that habitat fragmentation remains the biggest threat to the giant panda. Even though some panda habitats have been connected with wildlife corridors, most are still fragmented, she said.
Another success story is the Tibetan antelope, which has moved from “endangered” to “near threatened.” Before the 1980s, the animals were hunted for their soft, warm fur, known as “shahtoosh” and used to weave shawls. As a result, their numbers decreased to less than 20,000, but the Chinese government announced in 2013 that the population had recovered to more than 200,000 due to conservation efforts.
Li Weidong, a zoologist who studies the Tibetan antelope at the Xinjiang Institute of Geography and Ecology, told Sixth Tone that massive hunting for the antelope’s fur had stopped entirely since the 2000s. The current threats, he said, come from increasing human activity, such as mining operations in the animals’ habitats.
Despite these success stories, it’s mostly bad news on the red list. Twenty-eight percent of all mammals are under threat, compared to 25 percent eight years ago. Illegal hunting and habitat loss are wiping out some of humanity’s closest relatives. The eastern gorilla, western gorilla, Bornean orangutan, and Sumatran orangutan are all at the brink of extinction and have been moved to “critically endangered.” The other two “great apes,” the chimpanzee and bonobo, are listed as endangered.
Even the outlook for the giant panda is still grim: According to research, climate change is expected to wipe out 35 percent of the bamboo forests they call home, causing the population to decline once again over the next 20 years.
This article has been updated to include the response by the SFA.
(Header image: A giant panda sits perched in a tree at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Sichuan province, Sept. 21, 2015. Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)