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Best Panda Habitats Outside Current Nature Reserves, Study Finds
Pandas in captivity at the China Center for Research and Conservation of the Giant Panda in Wolong eat nutritious bars in addition to bamboo.
Credit: Sue Nichols, Michigan State University

Much effort and resources have been used to protect the endangered giant panda, but much of the best habitat for these iconic bears is outside of the nature reserves where pandas actually live, new research shows.

Researchers hope the new findings will help conservation efforts aimed at protecting pandas and increasing their numbers.

"This research can help the Chinese government and international non-governmental organizations develop comprehensive strategic plans for more effective conservation of the panda," said Jianguo "Jack" Liu of Michigan State University.

The giant panda is the rarest member of the bear family. Panda once ranged throughout most of China, northern Vietnam and northern Myanmar.

Today, fewer than 1,600 giant pandas live in the wild in three Chinese provinces: Gansu, Shaanxi and Sichuan.

Human actions including logging , residential development and the expansion of farming are considered the main reasons for the dramatic contraction of the giant panda's habitat.

The research team developed habitat models using geographical and environmental information gathered by satellites overlaid with information on panda occurrence. After analyzing the six mountain regions in the three provinces where pandas are known to live, the scientists developed a habitat suitability index for the entire 48,328-square-mile (125,168-square-kilometer) area.

"Overall, about 40 percent of the suitable habitat for pandas is inside the nature reserves," said research team member Andrés Viña, a specialist at MSU's Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS), which Liu directs. "Our model also identified potentially suitable habitat outside the currently accepted geographic range of the panda."

The range-wide habitat analysis model gives governments and other agencies a new tool as they develop conservation strategies and priorities not only for pandas but also for many other endangered species.

"The Chinese government plans to add approximately 69,500 square miles [180,000 square km] of land to the country's nature reserve system between 2010 and 2020," said research team member Zhiyun Ouyang, director of the Lab of Urban and Regional Ecology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. "So opportunities exist to create new reserves, to expand existing reserves and to create corridors that increase the connectivity among the reserves. On the basis of our results, we suggest some new areas to be included in China's nature reserve system."

The research, detailed in the journal Biological Conservation, was supported by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.