The giant panda is one of the world's most endangered and elusive species. It is found only in a restricted mountainous region in China with an unusual dietary dependence on bamboos found only in these mountains. This elusive nature has shielded important knowledge needed to save it from extinction, until now.
Understanding population trends for giant pandas has been a major task for conservation authorities in China for the past thirty years, during which time three national surveys were carried out. The first two revealed alarming evidence of declines numbers of giant pandas. However, the most recent survey, carried out in 2002, showed the first evidence of a recovery, thanks largely to protection measures taken by the Chinese government including a network of natural reserves and strictly enforced bans on poaching and deforestation.
However, given the variable accuracy of traditional ecological population recording methods, scientists from Cardiff's School of Biosciences working with a team in China used a novel approach to accurately estimate population size. The results are published in the international journal Current Biology.
The team led by Professor Michael Bruford, Cardiff School of Biosciences and Professor Fuwen Wei, Institute of Zoology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences used recently developed 'non-invasive' methods for counting wild animal populations to re-examine panda population estimates. This method profiles DNA from panda faeces to provide a more accurate population profile.
Professor Bruford said: "Our results found that previous surveys underestimated the population by more than 50%. These finding indicate that the species has a much better chance of long-term viability, although we must not become complacent, since the population size is still perilously low".
The scientists anticipate that these results are likely to be replicated in other key reserves indicating that there may now be many more giant pandas remaining in the wild than previously thought.