Pandas true mascots for Games, biodiversity           editor:Wenny

0b3a876efd693efcccc388b2bcdd91bb.jpegChildren perform with Bing Dwen Dwen, mascot of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, during a rehearsal of the Games' opening ceremony at the National Stadium in Beijing on Jan 22, 2022. [Photo/Xinhua]

Chinese people's love for the giant panda can never be overestimated. The cuddly, peaceful, bamboo-eating creatures have come to symbolize China. No wonder they have figured in almost every emblem and mascot for China in recent times, from the 1992 Asian Games and the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games to the ongoing Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

But the panda is not popular only for its cuteness. It is an ancient species which has survived more than 8 million years, and is of great value to paleontologists, biologists, environmentalists and ecologists alike.

Their current habitat overlaps the biodiversity region of the Hengduan Mountains in Southwest China. Hence, the panda conservation policy, by default, is also conducive to protecting thousands of other species — both flora and fauna. Human beings, too, benefit from panda conservation, as a study by Wei Fuwen, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, shows. For example, the panda ecosystem is worth $2.6-6.9 billion per year, which is 10-27 times the amount spent on panda conservation.

China's panda conservation policy can be traced to the 1950s and 1960s when the government banned the hunting of pandas, and established the first four nature reserves for the pandas.

Over the decades, the government, local communities, NGOs and the public have made concerted efforts to protect the pandas. That their efforts have paid off is evident from the Fourth Giant Panda National Survey which shows the population of wild pandas has increased from 1,596 to 1,864. Also, the panda habitat increased by 11.8 percent, from 2.305 million hectares to 2.577 million hectares.

As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lowered the threat level for the panda in the red list from "endangered" to "vulnerable" in 2016. As inspiring as the change in the IUCN red list is, pandas still face major threats including habitat fragmentation.

Anthropogenic effects, including expansion of cultivable land and infrastructure construction, have resulted in dramatic loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat across the world. The pandas are no exception.

The fourth national panda survey showed the wild pandas are divided into 33 isolated sub-populations, compared with 18 in the third survey, because of habitat fragmentation. It is especially difficult for small panda populations in small habitats to survive. Also, they face potential genetic extinction risks.

Therefore, China has always emphasized the importance of conservation to ensure that the pandas not only survive but also thrive. Accordingly, the panda is high on the list of the two official documents related to species protection — the "National Key Protected Wildlife Protection List" and the "Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species Appendix".

The newly established Giant Panda National Park also shows the government's determination to protect and conserve wildlife and their habitats. In 2016, the government announced a pilot project to build national parks in 10 places, and it is exploring new ways in Protected Areas effective management and reforming.

After four years, five national parks stand out for meeting all the nine criteria, with the Giant Panda National Park being one of them. One of the park's major tasks is to gradually reduce fragmentation through habitat restoration and corridor construction. By covering 58.48 percent of panda habitat and removing the management barriers between the previous administrations of different panda nature reserves, the park is expected to more systematically protect the panda habitats.

Apart from habitat connectivity, experts have suggested two more ways to better protect the pandas. The first is to update the data on pandas and their habitats, an issue which the fifth national panda survey has been designed to resolve. But since the last survey was held more than 10 years ago, we need the latest data to understand the current situation so we can take targeted panda conservation measures.

The second is to first understand, and then take steps to resolve, the conflict between conservation and economic development in and around panda habitats. Since the support of local communities is crucial to effective conservation of the pandas and their habitats, it is important to ensure the local people benefit from conservation. The country's rural revitalization policy is of great significance, as it can help achieve this goal.

Furthermore, some NGOs are exploring new conservation methods with the help of local governments. For example, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Sichuan Forestry and Grassland Bureau (the Giant Panda National Park Sichuan Administration) jointly launched the panda-friendly community product certification system with the aim of transforming the conservation value of community products into economic value, so as to ensure conservation and development can progress together.

China is committed to protecting the panda, which is the symbol of environmental protection and biodiversity conservation, and fitting China hosted the first phase of the UN Biodiversity Conference last year.

In fact, China can share its biodiversity conservation experiences with other countries, so wildlife, their habitats and biodiversity can be better protected in other parts of the world, too. With an increasing number of people taking interest in wildlife protection and biodiversity conservation, we hope pandas will continue to thrive in the wild and remain a shining example of conservation for the world.

The author is Chengdu regional program head of WWF Beijing Office.
The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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