for National Geographic News
In this first of five articles for Panda Week (details in side bar), National Geographic News focuses on the pressure on the remaining habitat of the world's wild pandas. Although this rare and beautiful animal lives in dense bamboo forests high on the slopes of remote mountains in China, human settlement and roads are dividing them into small, isolated pockets. Unless corridors of wilderness are allowed to link these patches, researchers warn, the smaller groups will not be able to survive.
If China's fragmented mountain reserves are not linked and expanded, the chances of isolated panda populations dying out remains high, Chinese and American scientists report.
"Pre-existing reserves may not be sufficient in the long-run, " said Colby Loucks, a conservation scientist with the World Wildlife Fund-U.S. (WWF-US) in Washington D.C. "If we can build habitat corridors to link up the patches, pandas are going to be in much better standing."
Loucks is the co-author of a report published in the April issue of the journal Conservation Biology that highlights the urgent need to expand protected habitat in China's Qinling mountains. The region is home to around 20 percent of China's wild giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca).
The study was conducted by scientists with WWF-US, The World Wide Fund for Nature-China in Beijing, and the Giant Panda Conservation and Research Center located at Peking University in Beijing.
Race Against Time
An estimated 220 pandas live in the Qinling (pronounced chin-ling) Mountains, situated in China's central Shaanxi province. Once found across China, Myanmar, and Vietnam, fewer than 1,000 pandas are now thought to remain in just six mountain ranges in southwest China.
Within the Qinling Mountains, habitat fragmentation is the pressing threat. Some protected habitat patches are so divided by settlements, roads, and agricultural land that pandas find it impossible to move between reserves.
The forests are slowly getting "nibbled up" by development, said Loucks.
"Imagine a broken cookie," he said. "Though there are several large protected chunks of land, there are also lots of small and isolated crumbs of habitat around the edges."
Previous studies suggest that isolated populations consisting of 30 pandas or less have at least a 25 percent chance of extinction in the next 100 years when confined to such habitat crumbs.
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