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If China's fragmented mountain reserves are not linked and expanded, the chances of isolated panda populations dying out remains high, Chinese and American scientists report.

"Pre-existing reserves may not be sufficient in the long-run, " said Colby Loucks, a conservation scientist with the World Wildlife Fund-U.S. (WWF-US) in Washington D.C. "If we can build habitat corridors to link up the patches, pandas are going to be in much better standing."

Loucks is the co-author of a report published in the April issue of the journal Conservation Biology that highlights the urgent need to expand protected habitat in China's Qinling mountains. The region is home to around 20 percent of China's wild giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca).

The study was conducted by scientists with WWF-US, The World Wide Fund for Nature-China in Beijing, and the Giant Panda Conservation and Research Center located at Peking University in Beijing.

Race Against Time

An estimated 220 pandas live in the Qinling (pronounced chin-ling) Mountains, situated in China's central Shaanxi province. Once found across China, Myanmar, and Vietnam, fewer than 1,000 pandas are now thought to remain in just six mountain ranges in southwest China.

Within the Qinling Mountains, habitat fragmentation is the pressing threat. Some protected habitat patches are so divided by settlements, roads, and agricultural land that pandas find it impossible to move between reserves.

The forests are slowly getting "nibbled up" by development, said Loucks.

"Imagine a broken cookie," he said. "Though there are several large protected chunks of land, there are also lots of small and isolated crumbs of habitat around the edges."

Previous studies suggest that isolated populations consisting of 30 pandas or less have at least a 25 percent chance of extinction in the next 100 years when confined to such habitat crumbs.

Isolated populations, like land-bound species on islands, have no way to escape disaster, said Loucks. Populations ravaged by forest fires, famines, or other catastrophes have nowhere else to go. In contrast, pandas living in much larger forest reserves can move to other habitable areas.

"There are sections of the remaining forest where giant pandas have been extirpated," said John Seidensticker, a conservation scientist at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington D.C. "This shows the danger posed to pandas of continual fragmentation of the remaining habitat in this mountain system."

Forest Fixer-Upper

Using a combination of satellite images and other remote sensing methods, conventional maps, and data collected on the ground, Loucks and colleagues created maps showing the remaining suitable panda habitat in the Qinling Mountains. Pandas are fussy eaters, primarily feeding on just two species of bamboo. The researchers found that the current network of nature reserves covers less than 50 percent of the remaining bamboo-harboring woodland.

"There's plenty of bamboo-rich habitat free of pandas," said Loucks. "Expanding reserves and linking up protected habitat patches would encourage pandas to take advantage of these resources."

The study calls for the creation of three new reserves and several protected "corridors" of habitat to link up isolated patches.

Not a lot was known about pandas when the reserves were first created, said Loucks. Research since the 1970s has shown that the pandas migrate between a higher elevation bamboo species in summer and a lower elevation species in winter. Scientists say such information needs to be considered when designating new protected areas.

Government in Action

The Chinese government has already begun making changes above and beyond those recommended in the study, which was conducted in 2000.

Five new reserves and five new habitat corridors have been designated in Qinling. A busy mountain road responsible for carving one protected area in two has been redirected underground.

"When China decides to build something, it gets built fast," said Loucks.

The changes suggested for the Qinling reserves could also usefully be applied to ensure the survival of pandas in the other five mountain ranges.

"[The proposals], if adopted, will stem the fragmentation, enhance connectivity of habitat, and assure the necessary degree of habitat integrity to meet the needs of giant pandas in the future," said Seidensticker. "Analyses such as this provide the road map that can give the most conservation impact for the least investment [and] assure a place for wild giant pandas in the future."

Pandas are also reaping the benefits of measures adopted recently by the Chinese government to control severe flooding.

After catastrophic flooding of the Yangtze River and its tributaries in 1998, authorities took action to prevent future disasters. Logging has been banned in many flood-susceptible areas until 2010, and financial incentives are encouraging reforestation on the steep sides of the mountains that have been converted to agriculture. It's likely that these habitats will support bamboo given enough time, said Loucks.

"The indirect effects are pretty influential for panda conservation," he said.

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