for National Geographic News
Wild giant pandas may be much more common than previously thought, scientists announced this week.
New population estimates for the endangered, bamboo-eating creatures indicate there could be almost twice as many of them living in the wild than past estimates have suggested.
The new study, based on DNA analysis of panda dung, indicates that up to 3,000 wild pandas now prowl the remote mountain forests of central China (map of China).
Results of the last national panda census, published in 2004, put the population at around 1,600.
The international team behind the study says their latest population estimate suggests the threat of extinction is now receding for the giant panda.
Michael Bruford of the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University in Wales and Fuwen Wei of the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing led the research.
"Our results found that previous surveys underestimated the [panda] population," Bruford said.
"These findings 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 study focused on the Wanglang Nature Reserve, which was established in 1963 in Sichuan Province to protect giant pandas and other threatened wildlife.
Despite their size and distinctive markings, pandas are notoriously hard to survey because of their solitary nature and the rugged, bamboo-covered terrain they inhabit (kids feature: panda fun facts).
Researchers therefore employed a newly developed panda surveying technique using DNA recovered from the mammals' dung.
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