Giant pandas face greatest threat yet: A hotter world

Ilissa Ocko

Giant pandas, with their fuzzy raccoon eyes and innocent faces, are one of the world’s most treasured endangered species. We look at them and feel compassion.

It helps explain why the latest threat to giant pandas, rising global temperatures, has raised such alarm.

Poaching and habitat destruction over the past 3,000 years have brought the total population down below 2,000. Today, giant pandas exist in an area that is less than 1 percent of their historical range.

Several conservation programs over the past few decades have effectively prevented panda extinction and begun to boost the panda population. Unfortunately, this success may be completely offset by our steadily warming climate.

The heartbreaking truth is that giant panda habitat may be all-but gone by the end of the century, with half of it vanished by 2070, new research shows. And because they’re pandas, the animals will have difficulty adapting to change.

Climate change kills bamboo, 99% of panda’s diet

Using reliable data and robust modeling techniques, scientists have found that most of the current bamboo habitat will soon become unsuitable for survival, with bamboo estimated to entirely die off within 50 to 100 years, depending on the model.

Without bamboo, giant pandas have been observed in the past to starve to death. 

While other areas may become suitable for bamboo growth, they tend to be in regions other than where pandas live, or in areas outside current panda reserves where people – not wild animals – make their home.

Fragmented habitats will also prevent the bamboo from easily shifting its habitat, especially as it has an unusually long reproductive cycle.

The result: Giant pandas could lose half their habitat with even just a couple degrees increase in global temperatures. So far, global temperatures have already risen by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, and they’re projected to increase by another 1 to 6 degrees  by 2100.

Giant pandas have little energy to adapt

Even if the bamboo were able to successfully migrate, the lack of nutritional value in bamboo leaves the giant panda lethargic.

Because nearly all of a panda’s diet consists of bamboo, it must eat between 25 and 50 pounds of it every day to survive. It’s why pandas spend almost the entire day eating, and barely moving.

It is an effort to get pandas to reproduce, let alone relocate. The likelihood of these animals adapting on their own to a changing world is therefore low.

Do we still have time to save them?

In addition to taking actions to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases to limit warming, scientists suggest modifying current conservation strategies to account for a changing climate.

By planting bamboo in areas that will soon become suitable panda habitat, and by moving the most threatened groups of pandas, we can further protect this precious and beloved animal from the cascading effects of climate change.

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