- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Earlier estimates of the number of giant pandas in the wild may have been undercounted by about 50 percent in light of a new census that used genetic analysis to trace the endangered animals in a key mountainous reserve in central China.

The most recent national survey of pandas done by Chinese conservation authorities from 1998 to 2002 estimated that there were only about 1,600 living in the wild.

But if the higher estimate from the Wanglang Nature Reserve holds true for reserves throughout the country, “there may be as many as 2,500 to 3,000 giant pandas in the wild,” said Wei Fuwen, senior author of the report published yesterday in the journal Current Biology and a researcher at the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Although the stark black-and-white markings may make them stand out in the zoo and help make them one of the more charismatic at-risk species, giant pandas are wary of humans, elusive and hard to spot in the wild, where they tend to live several thousand feet up mountainsides in the rain forest of the upper Yangtze basin.

Although they’re related to bears and do eat some meat and insects, pandas are dependent on bamboo, which has low nutritional value, as the main staple of their diets. They have to eat 20 to 40 pounds of leaves and stems every day, mainly because they can digest only about 12 percent of what they eat. The animals also need to drink from a stream or river at least once a day, because they can’t retain much of the water from the bamboo they eat.

Previous nose counts, going back to 1968, tried to track the animals’ movement through the rain forest from footprints and scat, and, more recently, by studying bite patterns on bamboo found in fecal samples.

In 1968, the panda population was estimated to be 196 in Wanglang, the earliest of what are now about 50 reserves in China to be surveyed, but only 19 in 1985 and just slightly more, 27, in the last conventional survey completed in 2002.

But Mr. Wei’s team used the same fecal samples to genetically profile the pandas, using unique DNA markers to identify 95 animals, including 66 within the Wanglang reserve.

The researcher said the combination of human disturbances, including logging and poaching, and the natural cycles of bamboo die-off in the 1980s makes it “likely that many pandas in Wanglang Reserve have disappeared since 1969.”

But the samples still showed considerable genetic diversity and no evidence of interbreeding or population bottlenecks that indicated that the population size in the area had ever gotten as small as conventional surveys indicated.

The researchers noted in their report that the Chinese government now protects about 71 percent of the wild pandas through the reserve system.

And “when taken together with strictly enforced bans on poaching and deforestation in giant panda habitat, [it] augurs well for giant panda conservation in the medium term, provided such measures remain in force.”

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