There are thought to be fewer than 1,600 giant pandas in the wild today and the beloved bears' home in the mountains of China is increasingly threatened by climate change and human activity.
While China has made achievements in saving the pandas in recent years, a group of conservations says the government's plans to free up forests for commercial use could be a blow to the endangered species.
"This change puts these vital habitats potentially under threat from commercial logging, increased collection of firewood and non-timber forest products by outside enterprises, and other commercial development activities," Russell Mittermeier, president of environmental organization Conservation International, said in a statement.
China is reforming its system of collective forest tenure to allow individual farmers to transfer or lease operation rights to outside businesses, potentially opening up 167 million hectares (nearly 650,000 square miles) of forest for commercial use. Pandas roam in part of this area, and Mittermeier warned the plans could disturb up to 15 percent of the species’ remaining habitat.
"The reform contradicts the great steps the Chinese government has taken to conserve the giant panda in recent decades," added Li Zhang, a scientist with Conservation International's branch in China.
In a letter published this week in the journal Science, Zhang, Mittermeier and other researchers urged that China instead consider an "eco compensation" program in which it would buy back development rights from local communities to preserve the pandas' home.
They pointed out that China has already spent more than $100 billion (U.S. dollars) on eco-compensation, and they argue that another $240 million in effective payments could prevent a 15 percent drop in the giant panda population.