Conservation efforts in China are geared towards helping pandas, leaving leopards in decline
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China’s efforts to save giant pandas have paid off for the bears, but miserably failed leopards and other carnivores that share their home. Researchers say the findings are a warning against trying to preserve biodiversity by focusing on one iconic species.
Pandas officially edged away from extinction in 2016 in a sign of their rebound since reserves for the species were established in the 1960s.
However, over the same period in the pandas’ protected areas, leopards (Panthera pardus) have seen an 81 per cent loss and snow leopards (Panthera uncia) 38 per cent. Two other carnivores, wolves (Canis lupus) and dholes (Cuon alpinus), a wild dog, declined by 77 and 95 per cent respectively, possibly rendering them functionally extinct there. The carnivores play a critical role in their ecosystems.
A Chinese and US team led by Sheng Li at Peking University calculated the declines for the four species by comparing survey records from the 1950s to 1970s with modern camera trap records from 2008 to 2018. Interviews with experts and locals suggest most losses occurred in the 1990s, driven by logging and poaching of the animals and their prey. “I was not so surprised by the declines, but they are dramatic,” says Sheng, who notes the falls are consistent with those in large land mammals globally.
One possible explanation for the “broad retreat” of the four species while pandas thrived, is that the bears need much less land – as little as a 20th that of the carnivores. Large carnivores are also likelier to fall foul of conflicts with humans.
“These findings warn against the heavy reliance on a single-species conservation policy for biodiversity conservation in the region,” Sheng and the team write.
Plans for establishing a “Giant Panda National Park’” in China this year could offer some hope for leopards, wolves and dholes, as the scheme is meant to restore and protect ecosystems as a whole. Nonetheless, say Sheng and colleagues, any process of restoring the carnivores to their former glory would take decades.
Journal reference: Nature Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1260-0
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