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Quake Further Endangered China’s Giant Pandas

July 27, 2009

Six in ten giant pandas in China’s Sichuan province were affected by a strong earthquake that hit the area in May 2008, according to a new study released on Monday.

The scientists found that the powerful 8.0-magnitude tremor, which left 87,000 thousand dead or missing and caused enormous landslides across the region’s mountainous terrain, destroyed nearly 25 percent of the panda’s habitat close to the quake’s epicenter.

“It is probable that habitat fragmentation has separated the giant panda population inhabiting this region, which could be as low as 35 individuals,” Weihua Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, the study’s lead author, told the AFP news agency.

“This kind of isolation increases their risk of extinction in the wild, due in part to a higher likelihood of inbreeding.”

Sichuan province, which contains more than half of the world’s wild giant panda population, is designated as one of 25 global biodiversity conservation hotspots. More than 12,000 plant species and 1,122 vertebrate species live within the province, said Xu.

Ecologists used satellite images obtained before and after the quake in the South Minshan region near the tremor’s epicenter.  The images showed that over 220 square miles, or 23 percent, of the pandas’ habitat had been destroyed, with much of the remaining habitat left fragmented into smaller, disconnected areas — something Xu said was just as harmful.

To generate their estimates, the scientists used criteria that make forests habitable for pandas, such as elevation, slope incline and the presence of the pandas’ primary source of food (bamboo).

The researchers recommended that specially protected corridors be constructed to encourage the bears to move between the disconnected patches.  They also called for some areas outside the nature reserves to be protected.  The powerful quake caused twice the damage to the panda habitat outside, rather than inside, the reserves.  

The study also proposed that panda habitat be considered during the post-quake relocation efforts of affected towns.

“It is vital to the survival of this species that measures are taken to protect panda habitat outside nature reserves,” Xu added.

“Giant pandas in this region are more vulnerable than ever to human disturbance, including post-earthquake reconstruction and tourism. When coupled with these increasing human activities, natural disasters create unprecedented challenges for biodiversity conservation.”

There are about 600 giant pandas still living in the wild, according to the AFP report.  Protection plans for the bears call for the establishment of several dozen reserves throughout China.

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Image Credit: wikipedia

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