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Conservation bamboozled

12 January 2011

New research published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters could lead to a drastic rethinking of conservation strategies for the giant panda.  The paper challenges the prevailing wisdom about the endangered mammal’s habitat by showing that old-growth forest – previously not considered an important factor in panda habitats – is actually almost as strongly associated with the bear’s presence as its sole food, bamboo.

Scientists based at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Zoology spent four years undertaking one of the most intensive and large scale surveys of the panda’s habitat ever completed, examining the features most commonly associated with the panda.  While the most important association was, unsurprisingly, the presence of bamboo, the group was surprised to discover that the presence of old-growth forest was almost as important.

Due to the difficulty and expense of completing a survey on this scale, conservation strategies for endangered species such as the panda are usually based on much smaller scale surveys, which are then used as models in order to plan for a much wider area.  However, the researchers point out that the importance of old-growth forest was missed by all such previous surveys, suggesting that this approach may be leading to misguided conservation strategies.

As the authors state, “maps and measures of habitat suitability are only as good as the underlying biological assumptions, which are sometimes influenced by the scale over which data are obtained”.  While it’s currently unclear why the old-growth forest is so important to pandas, the authors hope that their study will be taken into account by the Chinese government, who are set to review a decade-old logging moratorium later this year.