You can’t stand under my umbrella: does Giant Panda conservation help other threatened species?

Source: Pete Oxford via Smithsonian Magazine

We all love pandas – they’re cute, they’re cuddly and they’re a conservation success story. But does conserving this species have knock-on benefits for others, or are they only saving themselves? New research suggests that other threatened species are being left behind by our focus on these bamboo-munching bears.

Giant pandas are one of the most well-known threatened species in the world, and have received considerable conservation attention. In addition to the millions of USD spent by the Chinese government1, several NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) also contribute funds to conserve the species, both in the wild and in captivity. They are a good example of a “flagship species” – certain publicly popular or culturally important species, used to raise awareness of the importance of conservation, and also encourage donations for conservation focused NGOs. This can be highly effective, as more appealing species do elicit more donations2, although there are concerns that other equally threatened and important species are ignored, purely for their lack of public appeal.

As well as being a flagship species, giant pandas are also seen by some conservationists as an example of an “umbrella species”. Umbrella species are the focus of conservation actions or management plans, with the aim that conserving them will also conserve other species which share the same habitat requirements or home range3 (see Figure 1). This can be applied to pandas, as their distribution throughout China is used make conservation decisions – 67 protected areas in China are specifically designated as panda reserves, 7.5% of the total area of land protected1. Whether they also fit the bill for protecting other species is slightly more complex.

Figure 1: Pandas as an “umbrella species” – conservation actions aimed at conserving pandas, such as creating protected areas, can help protect other species which live in the same regions. (Photo source: Binbin Li via Livescience)

The idea and application of the “umbrella species” concept has been controversial for a long time in conservation4, due to doubt that these species actually provide sufficient protection for those under their metaphorical umbrella. The panda is no different, with varying attitudes about panda conservation (including TV personality Chris Packham’s infamous attitude that they are a lost cause). Fortunately, scientific studies have been run specifically to find out if protected areas focused on pandas are protecting other species too.

In 2016, Li and Pimm1 presented a rather positive outlook. They found that 96% of the areas inhabited by Giant Pandas are also the centre of inhabited ranges for other endemic species1 (endemic species are those found only in their native country, so here only found in China). They interpret these results as proof that pandas are an effective umbrella species – by choosing to protect the forest areas which are home to Giant Pandas, other species which rely on this habitat will also be protected, like the Snub-nosed monkeys and Blue Sheep shown in Figure 1.

Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. When we look at the results more closely, not all species are benefiting – while 70% of forest birds and mammals are protected by giant panda reserves (based on range overlap), only 31% of endemic amphibians are1. The same trend is seen when looking at the effects of nature reserves in China more generally: only 6% of amphibian species were adequately protected, compared to 35% of mammals and 32% of birds1. Given that amphibians are the most threatened animal group (according to the IUCN), and that they are suffering from both climate change and a killer fungus, this is a worrying difference. While there are obviously other factors involved, this does add weight to the idea that certain groups are more favoured when it comes to conservation.

More recently, research has shown that protection for pandas is failing another charismatic yet highly threatened group – apex-predators. The study by Li et al. from earlier this year5 used camera trap data to investigate the change in distribution of four large carnivores across protected areas within the giant panda range. For all four species investigated (leopards, snow leopards, wolves and dholes) large decreases in range size were found5 (as shown in Figure 2). The loss was most significant for dholes, which disappeared from 41 of the 43 protected areas where they had been present historically5. These results are disheartening, but not surprising for anyone who’s keeping up with the current ecological crisis.

Figure 2: Graphs showing protected areas where presence of large carnivores was recorded in the 2010s (black) compared to baseline distribution based on data from the 1960s-70s (grey). Bars correspond to different regions in China. Clockwise from top left, species represented are leopard, snow leopard, dhole, wolf. (Source: Li et al. 2020)

Given the success of protected areas for conserving wild pandas, how have we seen such significant loss of other large mammals? The authors suggest several potential reasons. Most notably, giant pandas have a much smaller territory size than these large carnivores (which can have home ranges of over 100km2) – this makes sense when you compare their habits, with pandas spending most of their time eating bamboo, while wolves and leopards have to track and hunt their prey. This links to another factor that complicates conservation for large carnivores – the requirement for large numbers of prey. Not only does this mean that these species are dependent on the availability of other animals, which may also be experiencing population declines, but provokes the potential for human-wildlife conflict if predators turn to domesticated livestock for food5. Based on these factors, large carnivores may need more specifically focused conservation actions to protect them.

Overall, this case study demonstrates a wider truth in conservation: there’s not a one-size-fits all approach, and different species will have different needs that must be met to conserve them. While umbrella species can be useful, they should be chosen based on how inclusive their characteristics are (like range size and habitat requirements), to ensure that as many species as possible are sheltering under their protective canopy.

References:

  1. Li, B. V., & Pimm, S. L. (2016). China’s endemic vertebrates sheltering under the protective umbrella of the giant panda. Conservation Biology, 30(2), 329–339. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12618
  2. Veríssimo, D., Vaughan, G., Ridout, M., Waterman, C., MacMillan, D., & Smith, R. J. (2017). Increased conservation marketing effort has major fundraising benefits for even the least popular species. Biological Conservation, 211, 95–101. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2017.04.018
  3. Roberge, J. M., & Angelstam, P. (2004). Usefulness of the Umbrella Species Concept as a Conservation Tool. Conservation Biology, 18(1), 76–85. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00450.x
  4. Simberloff, D. (1998). Flagships, Umbrellas, and Keystones:Is Single-Species Management Passe in the Landscape Era? Biological Conservation, 83(3), 247–257.
  5. Li, S., McShea, W. J., Wang, D., Gu, X., Zhang, X., Zhang, L., & Shen, X. (2020). Retreat of large carnivores across the giant panda distribution range. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4, 1327–1331. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1260-0

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