Will forest reforms be bad news for giant pandas?

panda bear

Will Chinese forest reforms be bad news for panda bears? (photo credit: Conservation International photo by Kate Barrett)

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is probably the most iconic of all endangered species, it has played a staring role since the beginning of the wildlife conservation industry and billions of dollars have been spent on preserving the species. There are concerns though that the new changes to forestry policy in China could impact of the number of pandas living in the wild.

Currently collective forests in China are being liberated from state control and individuals families will be able to lease out the rights to exploit their bit of forest to outside interests. There are claims that up to 15% of giant panda habitat ( 345,700 hectares) could be impacted by forest commercialisation.

In an open letter to the Chinese government, published in the journal Science, scientists and researchers from Conservation International have asked that the Chinese government protects the habitat from development by buying the exploitation and development rights themselves. The letter asks that the government makes eco-compensation payments towards the ecosystem services that the forests provides.

The claim that ecosystem services payments of  $240 million USD would protect the estimated 15% of habitat that could be lost under the reforms to China’s 167 million hectares of collective forest. If the Chinese government were prepared to increase the payments to $2.25 billion USD then the current giant panda habitat could be increased by another 40%. The restoration of the additional habitat would be a real boost to the conservation of the pandas.

While the payment figures may be large they need to be taken into context with China already having paid out $100 billion USD on eco-compensation to buy back development rights from local
communities to secure the continued provision of ecosystem services.

Dr. Russell Mittermeier, co-author of the letter ‘Eco-compensation for giant panda habitat’ and President of Conservation International (CI), said: ‘This change puts these vital habitats potentially under threat from commercial logging, increased collection of firewood and non-timber forest
products by outside enterprises, and other commercial development activities. Sadly, it would threaten to deforest, degrade or disturb up to 15% of the remaining giant panda habitat.’

Li Zhang, scientist of Conservation International China, said: ‘The reform contradicts the great steps the Chinese government has taken to conserve the giant panda in recent decades. The government has designated 63 panda reserves which constitute over 60% of the panda’s remaining wild habitat, improved the species’ endangered habitats by reforesting or restoring native forests and restricting human access to these, increased the number and capacity of forestry staff in these areas, strictly banned hunting of the species, and pioneered captive breeding techniques.  As a result of these efforts, the official number of giant pandas in the wild has increased to nearly 1,600 from less than 1,000 in the late 1980s. It would be inexcusable to reverse this great achievement for these majestic creatures and our country’s recent conservation efforts.’


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