A panda census is under way in China that is expected to confirm a slight recovery in numbers of one of the world’s most endangered species.
The two-year survey in the mountains of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces is the most comprehensive and sophisticated study ever made of the wild population — currently estimated at 1,600 pandas — and their habitat.
The census comes as Edinburgh zoo prepares to take delivery of the first two giant pandas to arrive in the UK for almost 20 years. Tian Tian (甜甜, “Sweetie”) and Yang Guang (陽光, “Sunshine”) will fly out from Chengdu today on a jet emblazoned with a panda portrait.
Visitors to their new European home will soon be able to observe the pair in captivity, while rangers in their homeland are trudging through forests, collecting DNA samples and logging droppings and paw prints.
Conservationists and government officials believe the survey will show modest success from the creation of about 50 panda reserves and a multibillion dollar campaign to raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity.
Thousands of scientists and volunteers will take part in the study.
The results will not be available until at least 2013, but one of the senior technical advisers, Wei Fuwen (魏輔文) of the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, was optimistic.
“The number of pandas has definitely increased due to the laws and regulations that have been passed to protect the species and the forests, but it is too early to say how much of a rise there has been,” he said.
Estimates of panda numbers in the wild vary enormously due to the difficulty of collecting data about the notoriously shy animal, which lives in dense, high-altitude vegetation: The last survey required more than 35,000 volunteers.
However, there have been encouraging signs that the population has stabilized after decades of decline. From a low of 1,100 giant pandas in the 1980s, the most recent survey by the state forestry administration in 2004 suggested the wild population had increased to 1,596.
Another academic study in 2007, which used genetic sampling, put the number as high as 3,000 The new census — which started in Yingjing County in Sichuan in late October uses both old-style tracking methods and modern DNA analysis.
“After this, I think we can get a better idea of how to help them survive,” said Fan Zhiyong (范志勇) of the WWF conservation group. “We think the study will show that the population is basically stable with a small increase over the past 10 years.”
The survey will focus on an area of 3,200km2, though the animals are thought to range over territories almost 1,000 times as large.
Even if a small gain is confirmed, the panda is not out of danger. Habitat loss is the biggest threat. Expanding cities and villages have pushed ever further into the mountains. Road and trains have carved up much of the remaining area. There are almost no rivers left undammed.
“The biggest challenge is from infrastructure because the economy has grown so fast. We really need to get the government agencies to pay more attention to that,” Fan said. “The endangered status of the giant panda has not changed.”
Chinese authorities, working with international conservation groups, have established a series of “breeding” channels to link reserves so that small populations of pandas do not become isolated. One purpose of the DNA testing is to assess the extent to which the animals have become genetically inbred.