Most panda reserves consist of bamboo forests at high elevation, which is not ideal for all wildlife. The researchers found that two threatened species, Asiatic black bears and forest musk deer, actively lost key habitat in the most intensively protected panda areas. And in places where habitat changed for the better for forest musk deer and Asiatic black bears, as well as for two other cloven-hoofed species, Chinese serow and Reeve’s muntjac, it changed for the worse for pandas. “Now we know that when we’re protecting pandas, we’re losing Asiatic black bears, musk deer and probably many other species,” Dr. Wang said.
The findings echo research published last summer by some of Dr. Wang’s colleagues, which found that panda conservation had not helped large carnivores in China, like leopards, wolves and snow leopards.
David Lindenmayer, a conservation biologist at the Australian National University in Canberra, who was not involved in the research, said the new panda findings reinforced ongoing concerns about the umbrella species approach to conservation. While pandas and other high-profile species are great for fund-raising and campaigning, rare animals usually have very specific habitat requirements. Efforts to conserve an entire ecosystem seldom align with the needs of these more charismatic species, Dr. Lindenmayer said.
“There is a need to be very sober in making decisions about what species are selected and why, and what species can and cannot work as useful surrogates,” he said. “Otherwise, serious mistakes get made.”
In China, reception to the panda findings has been mixed, Dr. Wang said. “Some people said it’s just common sense that species need their own habitat, but others asked me why I wrote an article in English criticizing our great success in panda conservation.”
Dr. Wang was concerned that the government would be displeased, but so far, he said, the response has been mostly positive. “They’ve started to talk about incorporating a multispecies monitoring network in the new Giant Panda National Park” in Central China, he said. “They may not be happy about this finding, but I think they’re moving forward to avoid similar results being repeated.”
Some change is already happening on the ground. World Wide Fund for Nature-China, for example, which works with the Chinese government, recently added snow leopards to its conservation strategy.