WASHINGTON – Red pandas, the bushy-tailed and russet-furred bamboo-munchers that dwell in Asian high forests, are not a single species, according to the most comprehensive genetic study to date on these endangered mammals. Scientists said on Wednesday they had found substantial divergences between the two species -- Chinese red pandas and Himalayan red pandas -- in three genetic markers in an analysis of DNA from 65 of the animals. The recognition of the existence of two species could help guide conservation efforts for a mammal adored by many people even as its numbers dwindle in the wild. Chinese red pandas are found in northern Myanmar as well as southeastern Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China. Himalayan red pandas are native to Nepal, India, Bhutan and southern Tibet in China.
Though an undoubtably iconic species for environmentalists--and the highly recognizable symbol of the World Wildlife Fund for half a century--some argue that all the dollars funneling into panda conservation are, simply put, not worth it. With fewer than 2,000 pandas left in the wild, some experts have called for the panda to be left to die out, while others have argued that preserving the species, and its image, will help fuel conservation efforts across the board. Now, a new study led by a group of Chinese researchers proves the haters wrong. Panda conservation has huge benefits, the group found, beyond just saving pandas themselves. Their research was published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
Despite signs that numbers of giant pandas are rising, suitable habitat has shrunk, according to satellite data. The forests where the panda lives are in worse shape than in 1988, when it was first listed as endangered, scientists say. Last year, the giant panda was downgraded from endangered to vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Habitat loss is the most serious threat to the animal, which is seen as an icon of global extinction efforts. "What's new in this study is our ability to assess the status of the giant panda by using satellite imagery and then use that information to come up with recommendations of how better to manage this iconic threatened species," said Prof Stuart Pimm, of Duke University, North Carolina, US, who is a researcher on the study.
A young giant panda eats bamboo in the Chengdu Research Base of the Giant Panda Breeding Center in China. In August 2014, paleoanthropologist Yingqi Zhang and his team descended into a sinkhole on the hunt for Gigantopithecus, the largest known primate to ever live. They came back out with a mix of bones from the hapless creatures that had fallen into the natural "death trap." None of those bones belonged to the extinct ape, but the team was in for a surprise: The mix included a 22,000-year-old lower jaw from an ancient panda. And within its worn edges, the jaw held what is now the world's oldest sample of panda DNA.
Cute, cuddly and eminently distinctive, everybody loves giant pandas. So much so that, in exchange for political favors or for lucrative trade deals (ref), the Chinese government offers countries around the world the opportunity to rent a giant panda. But this "opportunity" comes with a hefty price tag: panda rent can cost as much as one million dollars annually for a period of at least ten years. Add to that the cost of building a state-of-the-art zoo enclosure, which runs many hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the annual cost to feed and properly care for pandas, which only eat bamboo, which can be as high as $500,000 or so each, according to a spokesperson at Zoo Atlanta (more here). Although it is unclear how much money China actually spends on its captive-breeding efforts nor on conserving wild panda habitat, it's safe to say that those costs are also high.