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Census Shows China's Panda Population Bigger Than Thought - 2004-06-21

A new census of endangered giant pandas in China reveals more of the animals than previously thought. But the new tally may not actually represent a significant increase in the panda population.

A four-year-long Chinese survey of giant pandas has counted nearly 1,600 of the animals, up more than 40 percent from the 1,100 counted in the last census in 1988. Pandas were also discovered in regions where they were not thought to exist.

Chinese forestry officials say the results show that the government's panda protection program is working. But the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group that helped China with the census financially and technically, says the higher count occurred mostly because it was more accurate than the last one.

"Since the last survey, there has been a substantial amount of habitat loss due to logging, said Karen Baragona, head of the fund's panda program in Washington. "So what we think is that the population probably has not increased so significantly in the intervening period. Probably the last survey was an underestimate and this survey is more accurate because we made use of really cutting-edge [the most advanced] computer and satellite technology that just wasn't available at the time of the last survey."

The panda head count occurred the traditional way. More than 170 people observed the animals in difficult mountain terrain in three Chinese counties. For the first time, however, the census-takers used hand-held transmitters linked to the network of global positioning satellites, which can identify an individual's location within a few meters. This allowed the government to map panda distribution very accurately.

The work suggests that the long decline in China's giant panda population has, if not reversed, at least halted. Beijing has protected them by imposing a ban on logging in the mountain forests where they live, requiring logged areas to be reforested, and setting aside 40 forest reserves for them.

But Ms. Baragona says the new census shows that one-third of the pandas do not live in the protected areas and are threatened by human encroachment.

"Important areas for pandas are still not protected in nature reserves. So it shows us where we still need to create new nature reserves," she said. "It also shows us places where we can replant forests to restore habitat and reconnect isolated panda populations. So they're still at risk, given the development pressures in China, and we want to find ways to protect that remaining one-third of the panda population before their habitat becomes more encroached upon by economic development."

Happily, reforestation is conducive to the only food pandas can eat, bamboo, because it can grow in most types of woodland. Ms. Baragona says this means that pandas do not require the disappearing old growth forests to survive.

"They certainly prefer some of those areas for certain needs like having their cubs," she said. "They like to build their dens in trees in old growth forests. But what they need for feeding, bamboo, can regenerate relatively quickly in forests that have been logged previously. So the restoration efforts can really pay off in a relatively short amount of time."

The World Wildlife Fund calls the panda survey a powerful symbol of China's future because it shows the need to balance human needs and nature conservation.