Pandas offer ‘protective umbrella’ to other animals

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Sometimes conservation just doesn’t seem fair. We pour tons of money into saving animals that are charismatic, colorful, or cute. Meanwhile, many of their less attractive — but no less threatened — fellow species go largely ignored.

But what if protecting popular animals also helps other species? Researchers decided to investigate the situation in China, where the giant panda reigns supreme. This adorable bear, considered one of the country’s “flagship” species, is regularly monitored and enjoys special protection in panda nature reserves.

To find out whether other species benefit from panda-mania, the study authors assembled a list of about 2,300 mammal, bird, and amphibian species in China. The team then determined which animals were endemic — meaning that they lived almost entirely within the country — and narrowed down the list to 132 mammals, 117 birds, and 250 amphibians.

Roughly half of the endemic species live mainly in forests, the authors report. Seventy percent of the forest mammal and bird species and 31 percent of forest amphibian species share habitat with pandas. And the national nature reserves created to protect pandas also provide refuge for nearly all of those species with overlapping habitats.

The team pinpointed areas where endemic species tend to cluster, such as the eastern Hengduan Mountains. Most panda habitat covers these centers of unique biodiversity, the researchers found. The panda is thus an “umbrella species” whose protection helps other animals, the authors write, and “investing in almost any panda habitats will benefit many other endemics.”

Some species are still neglected though. For example, many endemic animals live in parts of Sichuan that don’t fall into panda territory. And even though panda nature reserves overlap with endemic species habitat, they may not be big enough to protect the animals. In other words, the panda’s protective umbrella is a bit leaky. Roberta Kwok | 10 September 2015

Source: Li, B.V. and S.L. Pimm. 2015. China’s endemic vertebrates sheltering under the protective umbrella of the giant panda. Conservation Biology doi: 10.1111/cobi.12618.

Image © Hung Chung Chih | Shutterstock