China’s recent achievements in giant panda conservation are at risk of being undermined by the reform of its system of collective forest tenure, said Conservation International scientists in a letter published in the journal Science. The reform of China’s 167 million hectares of forest -- 345,700 hectares of which constitutes 15% the panda’s remaining habitat -- enables individual farming households to transfer or lease operation rights to outside enterprises.
Dr. Russell Mittermeier, co-author of the letter ‘Eco-compensation for giant panda habitat’ and President of Conservation International (CI), said: ‘This change puts these vital habitats potentially under threat from commercial logging, increased collection of firewood and non-timber forest products by outside enterprises, and other commercial development activities. Sadly, it would threaten to deforest, degrade or disturb up to 15% of the remaining giant panda habitat.’
Li Zhang, Scientist of Conservation International China said, ‘The reform contradicts the great steps the Chinese government has taken to conserve the giant panda in recent decades. The government has designated 63 panda reserves which constitute over 60% of the panda’s remaining wild habitat, improved the species’ endangered habitats by reforesting or restoring native forests and restricting human access to these, increased the number and capacity of forestry staff in these areas, strictly banned hunting of the species, and pioneered captive breeding techniques. As a result of these efforts, the official number of giant pandas in the wild has increased to nearly 1,600 from less than 1,000 in the late 1980s. It would be inexcusable to reverse this great achievement for these majestic creatures and our country’s recent conservation efforts.’
In the letter Zhang and other CI scientists proposed “eco compensation” as a solution to protect the giant panda’s habitat while providing an income to the local communities. Eco-compensation is a new conservation strategy in which the Government of China buys back development rights from local communities in order to secure the continued provision of ecosystem services. As part of eco-compensation agreements, communities establish contractual management systems that emphasize participatory decision-making and co-management of natural resources.
Zhang advised, ‘an “eco compensation” program would reduce this threat to the giant panda and their habitat, while fulfilling the intention of the forest reform to increase local economic benefits by buying back certain development rights from communities within panda habitat areas. It is our hope that the Government of China will issue eco compensation for these areas. However with the current collective forest tenure reform policy, another option would be that civil society purchases those collective forests to establish community protected areas through such conservation agreements with local communities.’
$240 million USD in effective eco-compensation payments could prevent an estimated 15% decline in the giant panda population, while an additional $2,252 million USD for effective eco-compensation and restoration of potential habitat could restore the giant panda population to an estimated 40% above current levels. China has spent more than $100 billion USD on eco-compensation to buy back development rights from local communities to secure the continued provision of ecosystem services.
The critically endangered giant panda is one of the best known global flagship species for biodiversity conservation. Old-growth forests are panda’s preferred habitat, and along with the presence of bamboo these forests are critical to the survival of the giant panda in the wild. Historically the giant panda lived across large areas of China as well as parts of Vietnam and Myanmar. But due to diminished forest cover, human disturbance, and climate change, the habitat of giant pandas in the wild has decreased greatly, falling nearly 60% in the last six decades, from 51,000 km2 in the 1950s to 21,000 km2 in 2006.
Photos courtesy of Conservational International