China Photos via Reuters
A Chinese worker feeds giant pandas at Wolong Giant Panda Research Center.
updated 6/10/2004 10:28:08 AM ET 2004-06-10T14:28:08

The number of giant pandas estimated in the wild in China has jumped by more than 40 percent to 1,590, but the animal remains endangered because its scattered habitat makes breeding difficult, the government said Thursday.

Officials with the State Forestry Administration, releasing a new survey on the panda population, attributed the rise to conservation efforts implemented in the early 1990s.

But the World Wildlife Fund, which paid for half of the $1 million survey, cautioned that the spike may be attributable to more reliable surveying methods and not necessarily to a real increase in the panda’s population. The animal is still threatened by heavy logging and poachers.

John Rossi  /  WWF
A member of the panda survey team marks a spot to map panda habitat using GPS technology.
“What it’s telling us is that there are hundreds more pandas existing in the wild than we previously knew,” Karen Baragona, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s panda conservation program in Washington, said by phone. “But we really don’t believe that the population could have increased so rapidly given the habitat loss from logging.”

“We’re definitely not out of the woods,” she said.

Corridors being built
China is building corridors to connect the isolated areas where pandas live and is doing research on breeding, feeding and disease prevention, said Zhuo Rongsheng, head of the administration’s wildlife protection office. He said the government also is experimenting with the release of pandas bred in captivity.

Zhuo wouldn’t say how many had to be found before China would deem them out of danger of extinction.

“We can say with full confidence that we have achieved great success in the conservation of the giant panda,” Zhuo said. “However, we cannot say that the giant panda is no longer endangered.”

Pandas are also notoriously difficult breeders and Chinese scientists have tried nearly everything to increase the population in captivity, including showing films of other pandas mating. Most of the efforts take place at the Wolong National Reserve in central China.

Higher tech survey
The panda study, China’s third since the 1970s, covered mostly Sichuan province in the southwest and Shaanxi and Gansu in the north. It tracked pandas through their droppings and mapped their distribution and population density using GPS technology.

Two-thirds of wild pandas were found in nature reserves, which have almost quadrupled to about 50 in the past decade, Baragona said. The new survey didn’t include pandas under 18 months, suggesting the total number could be even higher.

Baragona said the estimate of the number of existing wild pandas has grown because more areas considered conducive to panda living were examined — and new pandas were found — and more advanced surveillance technology was used compared with the 1980s.

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