Protected areas’ location may hinder conservation efforts of giant panda

Giant pandas having a snack. Credit: Chi King

Giant panda are the icon of conservation and all of us grew up with pictures of bamboo-eating panda. In a new study published in Conservation Science and Practice, an international team of researchers challenges this paradigm of ’panda as a bamboo specialist’. They hypothesise that the introduction of panda to more diverse habitats and foods may promote the conservation of the species.

The tendency to place protected areas in habitats that are less attractive to humans because they are not very productive may be the reason why many species remain threatened and continue to decline. The authors, which include Dr Joris Cromsigt external link and Dr Mariska te Beest external link of Utrecht University, dub this phenomenon the ‘Protected Area Paradox’. They contend that despite the growth in both marine and land-based protected areas globally, the attempt to conserve species in suboptimal habitats is yielding poor outcomes.

Panda as a bamboo specialist?

To back this hypothesis, the researchers use the example of the giant panda, a species that is still highly vulnerable to extinction, with a global population of fewer than 2,000 individuals.

“Recent studies demonstrated that giant pandas only moved to high altitude bamboo forests and a specialised bamboo diet recently, that is, in the past 3,500 years, in contrast to the prevailing paradigm that they have been bamboo specialists for at least hundreds of thousands of years. Up to 3,500 years ago they had a broader range of habitats, including warmer, moist subtropical habitats”, said Graham Kerley, lead author of the study and Professor at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa.

Despite the growth in marine and land-based protected areas globally, the attempt to conserve species in suboptimal habitats is yielding poor outcomes.

Refugee species

The authors hypothesise that the recent shift to the high-altitude bamboo forest is because that is where panda found refuge from humans, but that it may be suboptimal in terms of the diversity of habitats and foods the giant panda needs in its diet. This would result in lower densities and fitness in the species and the species failing to prosper. “We have previously called such species, which are trapped in suboptimal habitat by (pre)historic human action, refugee species,” said Joris Cromsigt, co-author of the study and lecturer at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University.

European bison as king of the forest?

“A European example of a refugee species is the European bison or wisent,” Cromsigt continues. “For a long time, European bison was seen as the king of the forest but more and more studies highlight that bison are predominately grazing and prefer landscapes with significant grass cover. Our research on the bison near Haarlem in the Netherlands supports this.”

Shifting baselines

Since these shifts in species’ diets and habitats in response to human threats occurred millennia ago, current conservationists and scientists may believe that the baselines that they grew up with is how things have always been. Thus, they focus their work on keeping threatened or vulnerable animals and plants in the suboptimal habitats where they now occur or they create reserves with similar conditions. In other words, they have shifted their baseline towards believing that the suboptimal habitat is optimal. The authors believe that it is crucial to overcome these shifted baselines of conservation managers and scientists so that it is possible to identify who else is a victim of refugee species status.

Many of the species in protected areas are refugee species. We need urgent action to allow improved conservation management.

Improving conservation

The authors predict that many of the species in protected areas are refugee species and that we need urgent action to allow improved conservation management.

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