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China's panda census.

Beijing, China -- The most comprehensive survey of the giant panda population ever undertaken has found almost 1,600 pandas in the wild, nearly 50 percent more than were previously known to exist. The findings come from a four-year-long study of pandas and their habitat, done jointly by the State Forestry Administration of China and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The survey also found that habitat fragmentation, unsustainable development, and poaching continue to pose major threats to the long-term survival of the endangered giant panda, which live only in one small area in fast-developing China.

"This survey gives us the most accurate snapshot of pandas in the wild that we've ever had--their numbers, the state of their habitat, the threats to their survival," said Karen Baragona, head of World Wildlife Fund's panda program. "The good news from the survey is there. are hundreds more pandas than we previously knew existed in the wild and we found pandas living in areas we didn't know had any. But the survey reaffirmed our concerns that panda habitat is very fragmented and we have to ensure populations are reconnected with one another."

The last panda survey in the 1980s found between 1,000 and 1,100 animals in the wild. It is unlikely that the population has actually grown that substantially, Baragona said. Census methods have improved since then and the survey team got a more accurate count. Unlike previous surveys, which extrapolated numbers of pandas from selective counts of panda habitat, this one attempted to cover all panda habitat remaining in the wild and employed cutting-edge computer and satellite technologies.

This census is only the third ever done of the giant panda population.

"Pandas live in steep, remote mountains, and survey team members literally risked their lives to gather this data, under the harshest of conditions," said Colby Loucks, a WWF scientist who helped train the field staff in mapping techniques.

The findings provide a blueprint for where new nature reserves should be established. This is already happening in the Qinling Mountains, where WWF helped the government last year establish five new reserves and forested corridors linking them. There are now more than 40 nature reserves in China protecting panda habitat, compared to just 13 when the last panda survey took place 15 years ago.

Over the coming years, WWF will focus on connecting protected areas for pandas through reforestation as well as anti-poaching, wildlife monitoring, and community activities.

The panda survey was launched in April 2000 and covered all areas in China with habitat that could support pandas--nearly 23,000 square kilometers in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces. Technologies and equipment not available during the last survey were used this time, including global positioning systems and geographic information system analysis. WWF provided financial and technical assistance to Chinas State Forestry Administration, helped develop the methodology used in count the panda population, and trained the field staff.

"The data from this survey comes at a time when we have the best opportunity for panda conservation we've ever had," Baragona said. "Panda habitat continues to be lost to human development, but the Chinese government has taken some very important steps to save giant pandas and their habitat just in the past few years. Most importantly, in 1998, they banned logging in all of the giant panda's range."

More than 170 people were involved in the survey, which included data collection on natural resources in the panda habitat as well as the social economic status of people living in the panda range. The survey results will provide data not only to develop panda conservation strategies, but also to help guide conservation of other endangered species in China.

The first international conservation organization invited to work in China, WWF his been working on giant panda conservation since 1980.
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Publication:Earth Island Journal
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Previous Article:The Endangered Species Act at 30.
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