Giant pandas have not been doing great for a number of years. They’ve experienced population declines in the face of habitat loss, which has not been helped by their lazy mating habits, but China’s investment in panda conservation may be paying off. In 2016, the animal’s status was upgraded from “endangered” to simply “vulnerable”, and new photographic evidence also suggests that the charismatic animals could be doing better.
A series of images captured by surveillance camera traps in the Shaanxi Foping National Nature Reserve, in Shaanxi province, shows different adult pandas inhabiting the same area, something experts say is rare. It’s not totally clear whether these photos indicate that populations are growing, but they do give us a better idea of how pandas are behaving in the wild. Plus, they’re wild panda pics, which are hard to come by.
“Pandas are really hard to find,” Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University, tells Inverse. “I spent a lot of time in panda country and never saw one.” Pimm was a co-author on a paper published in Nature Ecology and Evolution in September whose main point was that “panda habitat covered less area and was more fragmented in 2013 than in 1988 when the species was listed as endangered.” Pimm is encouraged by these new images.
He credits modern camera traps, which snap photos as soon as they detect motion, for the unprecedented images. “The camera’s there 24/7. We’re learning a lot more about where they’re going.”
In one of the images, a panda can be seen carrying her cub along a path in the mountains. South China Morning Post reports that the parent and child didn’t hang around for long, but that a different adult was caught on camera pacing back and forth in the same area. They say this adult returned several times over the following six months.
He even marked a tree with his scent, which suggests that he’s claiming territory.
These panda pics are great news for the species, and they suggest that Chinese conservation efforts are paying off.
“The Chinese have put an enormous amount of resources into protecting panda habitat, and that is very encouraging,” says Pimm. “They’re creating new national parks, they’re expanding provincial national parks, and that’s a very good sign. Incidentally, doing that, they’re protecting other species as well which is an encouraging find.”
But whether these images indicate that there’s more pandas or just better cameras is not totally clear.
“I think it’s a bit of both,” says Pimm. And he’s optimistic that this camera evidence is a sign that we can expect to learn more about giant pandas in the future.
“The good part of this story is that, because we have camera traps much more readily available now, we’re in a position to learn more about what very shy, secretive animals like pandas do. We might not be able to interpret this single incident, but as we get more pandas caught on film it’s going to let us understand a lot more about what they do in the wild.”