Long the iconic face of endangered species, the giant panda has made significant progress in recent years. In the 1980s, only about 1,216 pandas were left in the wild, but the most recent census in 2015 counted 1,864 adult bears, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to downgrade the species' threat level on the Red List from endangered to threatened in 2016.
The increased numbers could be due to improved survey methods or true growth from better protection measures. In either case, pandas still face plenty of threats as their habitat has been damaged from logging, tourism and natural disasters.
Because pandas are now scattered across China in 30 groups, with each group isolated from the others due to habitat fragmentation, the Chinese government is creating a huge national park in southwestern China to protect them, National Geographic reports. Giant Panda National Park will cover 10,476 square miles (27,132 square kilometers), which is nearly triple the area of Yellowstone National Park.
The new park will reconnect fragmented habitats in an effort to reunite bear populations that have become separated from one another.
This project "takes the long view," Bob Tansey, China policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy, tells National Geographic. "Generally, pandas are doing well. But what will they need in the future? Connectivity."
Room to find mates
The park's connectivity should give isolated pandas a better chance to breed. Giant pandas have a very low reproductive rate, with females generally only fertile for one to three days each year, according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo. They give birth usually only once every two years, the WWF reports. With panda populations so scattered, inbreeding is a concern.
The new park eventually should give the bears room to roam and find mates.
Marc Brody, a founder of the ecotourism and conservation organization Panda Mountain, tells National Geographic the national park designation has promise, but it “does not directly resolve habitat fragmentation.”
"Habitat will remain patchy until degraded lands are restored and stronger land-use restrictions get enforced that make wildlife corridors possible," he says.
The $1.5 billion (10 billion yuan) park also aims to boost the local economy, the Associated Press reports. An official involved in the park's planning tells the state-run China Daily the agreement would help alleviate poverty among the 170,000 people living within the park’s proposed territory.
The government is offering financial incentives to encourage people living in the area to relocate, according to National Geographic. Some areas of the park also eventually will allow tourism.