Giant pandas still endangered, expert says

Panda caretaker Tania Stroobant smiles inside the panda maternity of the Pairi Daiza animal park of Brugelette on May 18, 2016 on the day of the announced of the pregnancy of giant panda Hao Hao.

It's still too risky to downgrade giant pandas from endangered to vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, said an expert from a major breeding centre for the species in Sichuan province.

The IUCN completed an appraisal of the number of pandas and their habitats a year ago. A well-informed source recently told the South China Morning Post that the organisation is considering downgrading the giant panda's status.

The IUCN would only say that an appraisal is underway and the results have not been released yet.

Zhang Hemin, chief of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wenchuan county, Sichuan, said such a downgrading would be detrimental to panda conservation.

Pandas survive solely along the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in six mountain ranges, five of which are in Sichuan. Their habitat, which totals about 23,050 square kilometers, is very vulnerable, since Sichuan is prone to earthquakes.

"In the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, 6 per cent of the panda habitat in Sichuan was lost," said Zhang, a panda expert who has been devoted to panda research and conservation for 33 years.

The number of giant pandas in the wild and in captivity has increased over the past decade.

China's fourth panda census, the results of which were released last year by the State Forestry Administration, tallied 1,864 wild pandas and 375 captive pandas worldwide at the end of 2013. That compares with 1,596 wild pandas and 164 captive pandas worldwide in the third census, which was carried out in 2000 to 2002.

Despite the population increase, 24 of the 33 groups of wild pandas found in the fourth census are believed to be endangered, with some groups having fewer than 30 pandas, Zhang said. Eighteen groups have fewer than 10 pandas each and are in severe danger of extinction, he added.

Meanwhile, Belgium's Pairi Daiza zoo announced on Thursday the birth of a panda, just three months after Chinese experts tried to artificially inseminate the mother, Hao Hao.

Su Zhou contributed to this story.