In the remote regions of central China, in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, a photographer would be lucky to get a shot of a Giant Panda. The cool, wet bamboo forests in this mountainous region make up a very large portion of the panda's confined historical range. Threatened by habitat loss from continued deforestation efforts, coupled by a very low birth rate and a high tendency for birth mortality, only 1,864 giant pandas were estimated to remain in China's wilderness in 2014 according to a report released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But on September 4th, conservationists, environmentalists and animal lovers around the world received a piece of good news – their efforts to fight the Giant Panda's extinction have changed their status from "Endangered" to "Vulnerable".
Giant Pandas were first introduced to the Western world in 1869, when a panda skin was presented as a gift to a French missionary from a hunter. Before the commodification of their fur began, the furry black and white bears were once considered a rare and noble animal, thought to bring good luck and fortune. But once the West received word of the value of a soft panda fur, the species became a poaching target by locals and foreigners. The Second-Sino Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War put an end to hunting for several years, but in 1949, following China's population boom, the panda's habitat became increasingly threatened from environmental stress and global famine, and at the same time extreme poverty led to a spike in illegal poaching and the rise of the black market.
Attempts to save giant pandas have been ongoing since 1958, when the Wolong National Nature Reserve was first opened by the PRC government, but only in recent years have efforts yielded such positive results. Worldwide conservation efforts are responsible for much of the success, and the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), which uses a panda as its logo, is often behind efforts to protect the pandas. Since 1961 they have worked tirelessly to create and fund government initiatives that have pushed the number of panda reserves up to 40 (as of 2014), safeguarding nearly two-thirds of all pandas left in the wild. WWF has also helped to preserve large patches of mountainous bamboo forests, which are home to many other endangered species and provide natural resources and economic income to vast numbers of people, including tens of millions who live in close proximity to natural panda habitats.
While this is a victorious moment for those who have fought to replenish the giant panda population, it is important to remember that this milestone is still critical. Only approximately 1,864 giant pandas can be found in China, and their range does not naturally expand past Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. As environmental factors like climate change and natural disasters, and man-made interactions like deforestation, hunting and economic development continue to rise, the Chinese government must invest in opportunities with local communities, NGOs and conservationists on a global scale to ensure these creatures stay safe.