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Climate Change, Panda Problems

Who doesn’t love a panda? As judged by the representation of these black-and-white bears in cartoon, mascot, and cuddly plush form, it’s safe to say that the answer is “no one.” And yet, despite pandas’ popularity, their continued existence as a species continues to hang precariously in the balance. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified pandas as a threatened species. At the early part of the last century, poaching significantly impacted the number of pandas in the wild. Deforestation and development of pandas’ native lowlands throughout the twentieth century contributed to declining population numbers. Pandas have a low birthrate that tends to dip even lower in captivity, which makes replenishing the species difficult. Now, this beloved Chinese icon faces even further peril to its lifestyle, courtesy of global warming.

Giant Panda Bear in captivity

Pandas eat bamboo. It’s a fact that even my four-year-old twins know, thanks to those aforementioned cartoon depictions. Pandas eat only bamboo, actually. That’s why it’s bad news that projected temperature increases in China over the next hundred years are expected to have a negative effect on the growth of bamboo in pandas’ habitats. Unless scientists can figure out how to keep bamboo growing, pandas will become just another victim of climate change and global warming.

Conservation efforts are currently focused on trying to get bamboo growing at higher elevations. Of course, continued human occupation and development in potential new habitats is a problem. If we have hopes of growing bamboo in new locations, they will need to be staked out and preserved now. Jianguo Liu, a sustainability scientist at Michigan State University and part of a team researching the bamboo growth issue, warns that the window of time is narrowing.

The team on which Liu works is checking projections for the impact that climate change could have on three species of bamboo growing in China’s Qinling Mountain region, where an estimated quarter of all the total remaining wild pandas in the world live. Every prediction the team happens upon shows some degree of climate change in the region over the next century, although actual numbers vary. Even under the best-case model, increased temperatures may wipe out eighty percent of the Qinling bamboo growth by the end of this century. The worst-case predictions would see one hundred percent eradication of the pandas’ sole food source.

Science has its hands tied in terms of reversing global temperature changes, but it does hold some hope for the pandas … if they can be moved to higher, cooler habitats. Assuming that humans can rein in the current (speedy) rate of global warming, higher habitats will have the same temperature in the future as pandas’ lower habitats do now. These new locales will be better-suited for the growth of bamboo. Of course, again, this land needs to be found and set aside. If the pandas do not have anywhere to go, Liu predicts, the future could be bleak for the species. After all, he points out, sticking the remaining pandas in a zoo or breeding sanctuary will not bode well for pandas’ long-term survival. We need to take steps today to protect these lovable giants.

The phrase “all creatures great and small” comes to mind when thinking about the effects of climate change on the world in which we live. Everyone, and most things, stand to be affected by man-made global temperature changes. It gets dizzying to consider how many species face endangerment or extinction due to their native habitats becoming unlivable.

CC photo credit: Aaron Logan (aaronlogan.com)