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Counting the pandas...

Which is more difficult to count: a couple of thousand or 1.34 billion? Think carefully before answering.

The answer, as you will probably have guessed, is the former, or I would never have asked the question.

The fact is that the Chinese have recently published the results of their latest census and announced that the number of people in the world's most populous country is 1.34 billion.

Having got that one out of the way, they have started on the more difficult question: how many pandas are there in the world?

Just as they do with people, the Chinese attempt to count their pandas every 10 years.

Unlike the people-count, however, the decade in between panda censuses tends to be filled with disputes about counting methods and challenges to their accuracy.

This is hardly surprising, for counting pandas is by no means as easy as counting people.

You cannot just send a form to every panda household asking how many animals live there, what their ages are, what flavour of bamboo is their favourite, how endangered they feel and whether they use eye liner.

Twenty years ago, the panda census seemed to be based largely on guesswork, with figures submitted by various regions, all trying to outdo each other in panda numbers.

Official figures were then issued, reducing the overall numbers considerably, with the apparent main intention of boosting aid for panda conservation.

Ten years ago an official figure of precisely 1,596 pandas was issued.

This was based not on counting pandas, which is very difficult as they are so shy and tend to get out of the way if they see a census-taker approaching, but on counting samples of panda poo.

The final figure is then based on estimates of how much poo is produced by one panda.

Over the past 10 years, however, the science of panda poo has progressed, resulting in a huge debate over the best methods of painting the perfect panda poo population picture.

One technique involves close examination of pieces of undigested bamboo found in the poo, which gives valuable clues to the age of the panda that produced it.

Another more sophisticated method used by advanced poo collectors is to submit the samples to DNA analysis to determine how many different pandas produced them.

This technique also gets round the possible problem of counting the same panda more than once as it wanders around.

According to a recent paper by panda poo experts, the 1,596 estimate of 10 years ago may be a severe underestimate and there may in fact be 3,500-4,000 pandas loping around in the wild.

Critics of the panda poo theory are skeptical about the accuracy of the DNA methods used, but we can be sure that the count that has just begun will use the most sophisticated state-of-the-art panda poo analytic methods and technology.

Only then will we be able to judge whether the panda really is the best ambassador for endangered species or whether it has been exaggerating its scarcity for all these years.

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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Date:Jul 26, 2011
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