for National Geographic News
The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries in southwestern China has been named a World Heritage site by the United Nations.
The forested region is home to more than 30 percent of the world's pandas.
Only about 1,600 giant pandas are left in the wild.
Conservationists hope the designation will help improve and restore critical panda habitat.
"This designation will be a big help for panda conservation," said Zhang Hemin, director of the Wolong Nature Reserve, China's largest panda reserve and one of seven reserves within the newly designated region.
"It will connect the largest block of [contiguous] panda habitat in the world," Hemin said.
However, conservationists are worried about the impact of increased tourism that the designation will likely bring to the remote and largely undeveloped region.
Two areas of the reserve were excluded from the designation because of developments planned there.
The plans include shopping centers, hotels, restaurants, and an amusement park.
The Wolong Valley could see the number of visitors to the area skyrocket from 200,000 people a year to 1.8 million.
"The pandas' greatest challenge used to be logging, marble mines, and agricultural encroachment," said Marc Brody, a panda conservationist based in Madison, Wisconsin. "Today it is the tourism economy."
Brody, a National Geographic Conservation Trust grantee, is the founder of the nonprofit U.S.-China Environmental Fund (USCEF), which is working with Chinese researchers to conserve wild pandas and their habitat.
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