A new study finds that a 9-fold uptick in livestock near Wanglang National Nature Reserve has diminished giant panda habitat by more than a third.
More than half of the panda’s range is protected in China, but overlap with grazing livestock, which eat bamboo leaves, maybe putting pressure on the country’s national symbol.
The study’s authors call for investment in alternative livelihoods, in sectors such as tourism and forest management, to steer people away from livestock rearing.
A recent spike in livestock rearing, once seen as an alternative to farming and timber harvesting that would allow China’s forests to recover, is now impinging on the habitat of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), according to a new study.
“If grazing is left uncontrolled, we are going to lose huge amounts of suitable panda habitats, to which we have devoted so much effort to protect in the past decades,” said Binbin Li, a conservation biologist at Duke University, in a statement. Li is the lead author of a study published in the Oct. 3 issue of the journal Biological Conservation.
The research revealed that increasing pressure from a 9-fold uptick in livestock — comprising mostly horses and cattle — in just 15 years around Wanglang National Nature Reserve in southern China has strained the growth of bamboo, which is the mainstay of the giant panda’s diet.
“What is worse, overgrazing has reduced the regeneration of these bamboos,” Li said. “Local communities leave their livestock to free range in the forests and only come to feed them salt twice a month. So the livestock feed on the bamboos year-round, especially in winter.”
The park is home to China’s largest population of pandas, which are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, but researchers have noticed the impact on their numbers.
“We have found many fewer signs of pandas in these areas in recent years,” said Luo Chunping, a scientist at Wanglang National Nature Reserve and coauthor of the study, in the statement.
But until now, the degree of that impact hasn’t been clear. To answer that question, Li and her colleagues mined 20 years of data that tracked the presence of pandas, bamboo and livestock in the park. From that knowledge base, the team was then able to model changes to the panda’s habitat.
That model revealed that grazing could be slashing panda habitat in the reserve by more than one-third.
“This long-term monitoring shows that the pandas are being driven out of the areas that are heavily used by the livestock, especially the park’s valleys,” said Stuart Pimm, a biologist at Duke University and one of the paper’s authors, in the statement. “These lower elevation areas are crucial for giant pandas, especially during winter and spring.”
Horses frequent these valleys year-round and are particularly destructive to bamboo, shearing off up to half of bamboo leaves as they graze.
Paradoxically, protections for China’s forests may have ultimately led to such a steep increase in the overlap between panda habitat and the area used for livestock grazing, as the government has introduced initiatives to encourage people to move away from farming and logging. Reserves such as Wanglang National Nature Reserve, which was created in 1965, were meant to protect the country’s national animal.
“The success in reducing logging and agriculture may have led to more livestock, however, which then compromised the goals of protected areas and panda conservation,” the authors write.
At the same time, rising incomes in China have increased the demand for meat, making livestock a more lucrative investment. And a 2008 earthquake in the region has stifled the local tourism trade, leaving fewer options for people to support their families.
The authors caution that Wanglang is representative of the situation that pandas face in other parts of the country. About 54 percent of the animal’s range is protected.
“These problems are not unique to our study area, but common throughout the panda nature reserves and habitats,” said Li Sheng, a conservation biologist at Peking University and an author of the study, in the statement. “It is not just an ecological problem, but also a gamble between the communities, the nature reserves, local governments and other stakeholders.”
One way to help the people who currently depend on grazing their livestock in these areas is to provide them with choices in how they make a living, Binbin Li said.
“Instead of just a livestock ban, we need to find alternative livelihood practices for the local community, like job opportunities in tourism or forest stewardship, which are preferred by the locals we interviewed,” she added. “Reduce the number of livestock in panda habitats, promote better ways of raising livestock, and find the balance between panda conservation and local development. These are our goals.”
Banner image of a giant panda by Binbin Li.
Li, B. V., Pimm, S. L., Li, S., Zhao, L., & Luo, C. (2017). Free-ranging livestock threaten the long-term survival of giant pandas. Biological Conservation, 216, 18-25.
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