Climate Change Could Starve the World’s Giant Pandas

The bears may lose half their habitat as temperatures rise, forcing them to move into the mountains.

(Photo: ‘China Daily’/Reuters)

Jan 12, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

No matter what we do about climate change, giant pandas are in trouble.

Researchers have concluded that even with just an increase of 1 degree Celsius in global temperatures, giant pandas would lose half their habitat by 2070, according to a new study published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Giant pandas, native to southern and central China, are finicky eaters. Given the bears' predilection for a bamboo-centered diet, any change in the health of bamboo forests will have a big impact on their survival.

Researchers looked at how temperature rise would affect all 16 species of bamboo to get an accurate view of where giant pandas could survive.

“Climate change would lead to both horizontal and altitudinal changes in giant panda habitat distribution,” the study stated. “By the end of the century, the suitable habitats below 1,500 meters would almost vanish, while high-elevation habitat would significantly increase,” the authors wrote.

Although there would be increases in bamboo at higher elevations for the panda, migrating up the mountains could be devastating to the species’ survival, as it would further isolate panda populations from one another.

Ming Xu, the study’s lead author and associate professor of ecological modeling at Rutgers University, cited small populations—such as the 32 pandas in China’s Xiaoxiangling Mountains—as extremely susceptible to the effects of climate change.

“The extinction risk of small populations...would rise,” the authors wrote.

The rough and steep terrain in places like China’s Minshan and Liangshan mountain ranges means the lethargic-by-nature animals would have to expend more energy to search for food. Ninety-nine percent of the panda diet is bamboo—containing near-to-zero nutritional value—so they typically spend most of their day munching, not hunting.

Xu also recommended a change in the current conservation efforts for pandas. Protected reserves already cover about 85 percent of the pandas’ suitable habitat, and about half of the world’s wild pandas live within those reserves. Because temperatures continue to rise, the scientists have recommended planting bamboo now in areas that will become suitable panda habitat in the coming decades.

Still, climate change is just one of many threats facing the 1,600 giant pandas remaining in the wild—among them: road building, deforestation, bamboo harvesting, and poaching.