Giant pandas are often shown chomping away on bamboo stalks and leaves, but such iconic images could become, like those of the long-gone dodo, a relic of the past. Even as conservationists work to save the giant panda through breeding programs, other changes in the world further threaten their existence. Giant pandas eat only bamboo and, based on computer models, scientists predict that global warming could drastically affect the most common species of bamboo in the “prime panda habitat,” the forests of northwestern China.
About 17 percent of the world’s remaining wild panda population — some 275 animals total — live in the forests in the Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi Province. As noted in Science Daily, these wild pandas vary genetically from other giant pandas as they are geographically isolated. But while this has had advantages for their survival, the close ties of the pandas to their habitat and its food supply is a growing concern as global warming changes the ecosystem.
With temperatures rising, bamboo is predicted to disappear in such great amounts — 80 to 100 percent — that the pandas’ Qinling Mountains habitat is expected to become inhospitable for them in the 21st century. Bamboo only flowers and reproduces every 30 to 35 years, a life cycle severely limiting its adapting to climate change.
A die-off will have other serious implications for the forest ecosystem. Other endangered species including the ploughshare tortoise and purple-winged ground-dove also rely on bamboo for food and shelter and their fate hangs as much in the balance as the giant panda’s.
Due to human development, pandas do not have a “clear, accessible path to the next meal source” and it is unclear what alternative food sources might become available. Pandas will only have a chance if bamboo can “move to new habitats at higher elevations,” with cooler temperatures (that is, with the same temperatures as current bamboo habitats). But this would also mean that pandas would have to be relocated from the nature reserves where many of those who live in the wild now reside. The climate change models predict that temperatures will rise on these reserves.
As Jianguo Liu, a sustainability scientist at Michigan State University, emphasizes to MSNBC, breeding pandas in zoos and other such human environments is not a long-term solution. The genetic diversity of the animals is lessened in these environments.
As exciting it is to hear about panda babies born in zoos around the world, their survival in the wild requires even more extensive efforts not simply to save their habitat, but their food supply. Is the clock running out for the giant panda?
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