China’s claims that its population of wild giant pandas rose around 17% in just over a decade are being disputed by some experts, who point out that the latest census was over a much wider area than the previous one.
The giant panda, a global emblem of wildlife conservation and symbol of China itself, are found in China’s central provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu.
But some experts say that the latest survey – the fourth carried out by the Chinese government – involved a search that covered 72% more territory than the previous count, which was conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Some experts have also raised questions as to what the scientific margin of error is in the Chinese government’s panda surveys.
The latest official count found that the total area inhabited by wild giant pandas in China now equals 2,577,000 hectares, an expansion of almost 12% since 2003.
However the areas giant pandas are found has become increasingly fragmented, and the population of the endangered animals increasingly dispersed.
Environmental group WWF, which helped with the panda report, said much of the success in increasing the panda population comes as a result of conservation policies implemented by the Chinese government, including the ‘Natural Forest Protection Project’ and ‘Grain for Green’.
“The survey result demonstrates the effectiveness of nature reserves in boosting wild giant panda numbers,” said Xiaohai Liu, executive director of programmes at WWF-China.
The report found that 1,246 wild giant pandas live within nature reserves, accounting for almost 67% of the total wild population and the number of panda nature reserves in China had increased to 67 from 27 in the previous report.
The fragmentation of habitats, which conservationists define as the separation of wildlife population by physical barriers such as roads, railways, dams and mines, is increasingly noticeable with about 12% of pandas facing higher risks to their survival, the survey found.
Traditional threats to pandas such as poaching appear to be declining, but large-scale disturbances including mining, hydro-power, tourism and infrastructure construction are becoming more severe and were referenced in the government panda survey for the first time.
Phosphate mining in China is seen a particularly urgent threat to pandas and their habitats.
Sceptics have often raised doubts about the accuracy of China’s panda surveys, claiming that they are strongly influenced by the political priorities of government officials and conservation groups.
“It’s a fine balancing act, so officials can claim the credit for rising panda populations but the number is not too high to diminish conservation funds,” Nature magazine quoted a Beijing-based researcher with links to China’s foresty ministry as saying.
Conservation experts also point that panda’s reclusive nature and mountainous habitat make it impossible to do a direct count, meaning that the survey uses two indirect counting methods.