Pandas’ popularity ‘umbrella’ not protecting neighbors

Doubt is cast on the long-held hope that the conservation protections granted pandas and other adored threatened species extended to their wildlife neighbors, calling for broader conservation efforts.

An Asiatic black bear from a camera trap in China
An Asiatic black bear from a camera trap in China, by Fang Wang

Forgive Asiatic black bear if they’re not impressed with their popular giant panda neighbors.

For decades, conservationists have preached that panda popularity, and the resulting support for their habitat, automatically benefits other animals in the mountainous ranges. That logic extends across the world, as animals regarded as cute, noble or otherwise appealing drum up support to protect where they live.

Yet in Biological Conservation, scientists take a closer look at how other animals under the panda “umbrella” fare and find several species have every reason to be ticked at panda-centric policies.

A giant panda camera trapped. Photo by Fang Wang

“The popularity of giant pandas, as of the popularity of other beloved threatened animals across the world, has generated tremendous advances in protecting forests and other fragile habitats,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Michigan State University’s Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and a paper author. “But this is an important reminder that it can’t assume that what’s good for a panda is automatically good for other species. Different species have specific needs and preferences.”

The authors of “The hidden risk of using umbrella species as conservation surrogates: A spatio-temporal approach” used camera trap data collected throughout mountain ranges to get a clear understanding of what and how animals were using protected habitats.  

What they discovered is that while the pandas are doing very well (the species in 2016 was declared “threatened” rather than “endangered” – a conservation point of pride). But three of the eight species focused upon in this study – the Asiatic black bear, the forest musk deer and the Chinese serow (a goat-like animal) seem to have suffered significant habitat loss and/or degradation under panda-centric habitat management. Pandas are picky about where they live – needing lots of bamboo, a gentle slope and no contact with humans. And the managed habitats have largely delivered for them. Just not so much for others.

A forest musk deer camera trapped. By Fang Wang

Fang Wang, the paper’s first author, noted that earlier efforts at tracking how a broader range of animals fared were handicapped by turning a blind eye to different habitat preferences, and not spotting potentially different habitat trends of other animals. The authors suggested that the forests and shrub lands in lower elevations next to the habitats best serving pandas could be better for bear and deer.

“China has made a tremendous achievement in establishing giant panda nature reserves, and now we’re learning that one size does not fit all,” Wang said. “China as well as other countries that face similar conservation challenges have the opportunity to move forward from rescuing single species to protecting animal communities and ecosystems.”

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation. Besides Liu and Wang, the paper was written by Julie Winkler, Andrés Viña, William Joseph McShea, Sheng Li, Thomas Connor, Zhiqiang Zhao, Dajun Wang, Hongbo Yang, Ying Tang and Jindong Zhang.


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