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Study: Giant Panda's Future Looking Brighter
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Giant pandas might not be in as much danger of extinction as previously feared, according to a new British-Chinese study that suggests there might actually be twice as many pandas living in the wild.


"This finding indicates that the species may have a significantly better chance of long-term viability than recently anticipated, and that this beautiful animal might have a brighter future," scientists said in a statement issued this week.


Until this study, scientists had thought there were about 1,590 giant pandas living in reserves in the mountains of China. Pandas, one of the world's most endangered and elusive animals, are dependent on bamboo found in those areas.


But scientists from Britain's Cardiff University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences now think that there might be as many as 3,000 in the mountains, following a survey using a new method to profile DNA from panda feces revealed that there were twice as many pandas in one of the reserves.


"This was surprising and exciting. In our opinion, the same parameters can be applied across the whole mountain range," said Mike Bruford, professor of biodiversity at Cardiff University's School of Biosciences.


Bruford said the scientists, whose findings were published on Tuesday in the journal Current Biology, stumbled across this discrepancy in the population while studying the movement of male and female pandas and their territorial instincts in order to understand their behavior.


The study found that about 66 pandas are living in the Wanglang Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province and not 27, which was the estimate recorded in the last national survey conducted in 2002.


Bruford said there is no way that panda births or migration could account for so large a discrepancy, and based on this finding, there might be 2,500 to 3,000 pandas in the wild.


Understanding population trends for giant pandas has been a major task for conservation authorities in China for about 30 years, with three national surveys conducted to date. However, the terrain is difficult to survey.


The first two surveys showed declines in numbers, but the most recent survey showed signs of a recovery assisted by the Chinese government's creation of a network of natural reserves and the enforcement of anti-poaching and anti-logging laws.


Bruford said the next step is to replicate the British/Chinese survey using the same DNA method in other reserves.


The challenge then is to think beyond keeping pandas in reserves and find ways to end their isolation because inbreeding and low genetic diversity remain a possible threat to the species' long-term survival, he added.


(China Daily June 22, 2006)

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