June 21, 2006
More Pandas in China Than First Thought
SHANGHAI, China -- Scientists using DNA samples have doubled their estimates of the wild panda population in a nature sanctuary in China, a finding they say bodes well for the survival of the endangered species.
The researchers believe between 66 and 72 pandas are living in the Wanglang Nature Reserve - more than twice the previous estimate of 32, said Wei Fumin, a zoologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The rising numbers are likely the result of natural population growth, migration from other areas and a logging ban aimed at preserving panda habitat, he said Wednesday.
"We're really seeing these policies start to have an effect," Wei said.
Results of the research, conducted by a joint British-Chinese team, were published in Tuesday's edition of the journal Current Biology.
Despite the rising numbers in Wanglang, Wei said it was too early to say whether similar studies in other preserves would show a higher overall number for China's wild panda population, now estimated at about 1,600.
"There could be other factors at work in different places," he said.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature, which uses a panda in its logo, said the findings were "a positive sign."
"We are thrilled by this new study," said Olivier van Bogaert, spokesman for the Switzerland-based group, known as the World Wildlife Fund in the United States.
He urged continued vigilance. "There are still very low numbers of pandas in the wild. Even if this study might prove that there are more than we thought, the number of pandas is still very low. All the measures that are being taken to protect their habitat need to be enforced and implemented further. Deforestation and habitat loss are still issues that we need to tackle."
Study author Michael Bruford, of Cardiff University in Wales, said the environment at Wanglang wasn't significantly different from China's 40 other panda sanctuaries, indicating there could be many more pandas than previously believed.
And while conservation programs were clearly working, the degree of genetic diversity uncovered at Wanglang seems to indicate panda numbers never fell as low as had been thought, Bruford said.
The researchers said they don't expect their findings to dampen China's enthusiasm for assisted breeding, which has proven effective in boosting the numbers of captive pandas.
Bruford said the field work, carried out by graduate student Zhan Xiangjiang, was arduous, not only due to the mountainous terrain but also because of the need to obtain fresh samples for DNA analysis.
"Once panda feces change from green to brown, we know we've had it," he said.
A separate Chinese team developed the DNA testing method, testifying to Chinese scientists' rising prominence in the field of genetics.
Wei said the new methodology also sheds light on little-known aspects of panda life, such as their family ties, geographic dispersal, age distribution and mating and migration habits.
Samples taken at Wanglang showed considerable genetic diversity, implying robust numbers of pandas and considerable migration in and out of the 123-square-mile preserve in the mountains of Sichuan province in southwestern China.
"Pandas are very hard to study and there's a lot to be known other than just their population," he said.
Further research using DNA sampling is to be carried out this year in another key panda preserve, in Foping in Shaanxi province to the east of Wanglang, Wei said.
Associated Press writer Alexander G. Higgins contributed to this report from Geneva.