A Message in Black and White
Upon its arrival in the Western world in 1936, the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) quickly captured everyone's heart and interest. With the advent of the environmental movement in the '60s, the world's most adorable mammal became an international ambassador for wildlife conservation. Unfortunately, even its fame has not kept the appealing black and white panda from traveling down the road to extinction. Probably less than 1,000 giant pandas remain in the wild. This species' decline demonstrates how a vulnerable animal can become rare through climatic changes and endangered from human impact.
Historically the giant panda ranged over an extended area of southeastern Asia. Today they survive only along the eastern front of the Tibetan plateau of China in three neighboring provinces. Climatic changes during the last 2,000 years caused the temperate deciduous forests, suitable for the bamboo that pandas depend on, to retreat to these remote highlands. However, it is the dramatically increasing human population that has so drastically reduced the number of pandas and threatens to consume the last of their habitat. China is the world's third largest country and is home to one quarter of the world's population! More than one billion men, women and children require more and more land for fields, pastures, and timber. Even panda refuges succumb to an ever-growing demand for space and natural resources. And still, poachers pursue the giant panda. As this Chinese national treasure becomes more rare, its hide becomes more valuable. The panda's pelt has been a status symbol of power and wealth for many centuries and now one hide is worth thousands of dollars on the black-market. Since the average annual income per person in China is only about US $360, unlawful hunting of pandas is potentially lucrative, even though the penalty may be death.
Panda Preserves...Opening Corridors
Many of the preserves are widely separated by inhabited or cultivated regions that pandas cannot cross. Isolated habitats decrease genetic diversity because unrelated animals no longer have the opportunity to travel and find new mates outside of their community. Fewer breeding animals contributing to a species' gene pool mean fewer genetic variations are available to enhance that species' survival chances in the future.
Expanding existing preserves or adding new ones so that habitats can be interconnected will allow pandas as well as other species to find unrelated mates and enrich their genetic health. These extensions are called corridors or greenways.
The giant panda is truly a representative endangered species because of the classic problems it epitomizes - large, slow-breeding, specialized vegetarian - that will not survive human impact without human assistance. We, the people, must take strong measures to protect not only this animal but every species and the habitat each depends upon. Everyone of us can make a difference by accepting the challenge to save all plants or animals at risk, whether in our hometown or around the world.