Efforts to protect giant pandas have failed to safeguard large mammals sharing their habitats, according to research published Monday showing dramatic declines of leopards and other predators.
Researchers found that leopards, snow leopards, wolves and dholes, also known as Asian wild dogs, have almost disappeared from the majority of giant panda protected habitats since the 1960s.
The giant panda has won the hearts of animal lovers around the world. Images of the bamboo-eating creature with his ink-blot eye patches have come to represent global efforts to protect biodiversity.
Since conservation efforts began, China has cracked down on poachers, outlawed the trade in panda skins and mapped out dozens of protected habitats. The strategy is considered one of the most ambitious and high-profile programs to save a species from extinction. And it worked.
The panda was removed from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) endangered species list in 2016, although it remains “vulnerable”.
But the new study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution has cast doubt over the idea that efforts to protect the panda automatically help all other animals in its territory.
The authors compared survey data from the 1950s to 1970s with information from almost 8,000 camera traps taken between 2008 and 2018.
The findings “indicate the insufficiency of giant panda conservation for protecting these large carnivore species,” said Sheng Li from the School of Life Sciences at Peking University, who led the research.
They found that leopards had disappeared from 81 percent of giant panda reserves, snow leopards from 38 percent, wolves from 77 percent and dholes from 95 percent. The predators face threats from poachers, logging and disease, the study found.
The IUCN estimates there are between 500 and 1,000 mature adult pandas in the Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu regions of China. The conservation group lists the leopard and snow leopard as vulnerable across the areas they are found in, while the dhole is listed as endangered.
Panda conservation did help protect other animals, Li said, including small carnivores, pheasants and songbirds. “Failing to safeguard large carnivore species does not erase the power of giant panda as an effective umbrella that has well sheltered many other species,” he added.
But he called for future conservation to see beyond a single species, or animals with “enormous charisma”, to focus on broader restoration of natural habitats.