The result of a recent survey, the figures show that China's panda population is now at 1596, meaning that although you are still unlikely to see one in the wild, the number out there is 40% more than was previously recorded when last surveyed in the 1980s.

In the only country in which pandas still exist in the wild, the news was received with jubilation by both government and environmental groups alike. The panda of course is the national animal of China, and a much-vaunted prize of diplomatic goodwill.

Semblance of success

Lying several hours' drive north of the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu can be found one of the region's more enduring sights. Hidden in the Minshan Mountains, an area of steep sided gorges, fast flowing rivers and lush vegetation, is the home of one of the largest collection of giant pandas in the world.

Talking to Aljazeera.net, Li Ning, a representative of the WWF bureau in Chengdu, explained the panda survey figure's significance: "It is a huge step forward to see the number increase. This increase is a reflection on the growing involvement of the government to secure the panda's habitat and educate local peoples."

Conducted over five years, it was not immediately clear if the survey's positive finding was a result of fervent breeding or simply that with more spotter's involved and improved communication equipment, pandas (who have a life span of 25 years) that previously may have been missed were less likely this time round to avoid the government's radar.

The panda population is said to
have risen 40% since the 1980s

From a conservation viewpoint however, the fact that the number has not decreased at least suggests some semblance of success.

Speaking in early August though, Jin Xuelin - an official with the Shaanxi Provincial Forestry Bureau - was keen to stress that the battle is not over.

Overseeing the Qinling Mountain range, home to some 273 pandas, Jin pointed out that pandas continue to face threats to their existence as a growth in tourism and infrastructure compete with the panda for its natural habitat.

"Cutting down trees and road construction are the major causes of decreasing the size of habitats for pandas living outside panda protection zones," said Jin.

Highly antisocial

Marking their territory either through depositing waste or rubbing themselves against trees to leave a scent, pandas are highly antisocial.

Apart from the yearly mating season around April/May adult pandas rarely see each other, and with a daily consumption rate of some 40kg of bamboo, a spacious, undisturbed habitat is essential.

"The panda population is threatened by a loss and disturbance of habitat, and a lack of gene diversity caused by the prevalence of inbreeding due to limited numbers"

Fan Longqing,
WWF officer

"It is certainly true that pandas continue to face a multitude of problems," WWF officer Fan Longqing said.

"It is a misconception that poaching is a problem as there is no end use for the panda. It is not used in Chinese medicine nor have we ever come across anyone who has bought it for its fur.

"Nor do we believe breeding to be a problem. As come mating season, the pandas become highly active, with one female often mating with three or four males," Fan said. 

"Instead, the panda population is threatened by a loss and disturbance of habitat, and a lack of gene diversity caused by the prevalence of inbreeding due to a limited numbers of pandas around. This weakens the gene strain, thereby affecting the strength of the immune system as well as raising the likelihood of a still-birth."

Upwardly mobile

In the Minshan region alone - a 35,000 square kilometre area home to around 550 pandas - there are over a hundred dams and some one million local residents, many of whom use the forests for agricultural purposes.

Rural people are being educated
about the panda's living habits

In addition, the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jiuzhaigou, a spectacular series of translucent emerald coloured lakes and snow-capped mountains attracted over one million visitors in 2001, a figure that will only continue to rise as the Chinese grow in wealth and mobility, spawning further road construction in the area.

Roads, says WWF literature, "cut off plants and animals on either side of the road from each other, breaking habitat in fragments", thereby further disrupting the panda's living environment.

The authorities are apparently more circumspect these days when building inside the panda's habitat as officials have come to better realise the fragility of the ecosystem that supports that panda.

"In the past government construction teams would never talk to us," said Fan of the WWF. "Now they appear keen to avoid sensitive habitat areas."

Back-up plan

In part mirroring wider public concerns about the environment, no construction company, be it conscientious or otherwise, would wish to attract the negative publicity associated with killing off the national animal.

Banning logging in panda areas, local governments are also paying the comparatively impoverished farmers, (in 2000 a farmer's income in Minshan was $225, $75 below the then national average) to reforest former agricultural lands as well as educate them on panda living habits, all of which, say WWF, has helped explain the increase in panda numbers.

"Cutting down trees
and road construction are the major causes of decreasing the size of habitats for pandas
living outside panda protection zones"

Jin Xuelin, official of Shaanxi Provincial Forestry Bureau

However, in what could almost be seen as a back-up plan should all else fail, the government has also constructed a breeding centre on the outskirts of Chengdu.

With 162 pandas in residence, the project's director, Hou Rong, told Aljazeera.net that the goal is to have over 300, at which point they will start releasing them into the wild.

In addition, says Hou, they keep in reserve panda eggs and sperm so that if the animal is wiped out, it can be brought back to life at a future date.

Eschewing comparisons with the film Jurassic Park, Hou likes to think of the centre as an "insurance policy in case something happens".

Set in several hectares of sprawling bamboo forest, the centre has its own, rather clinical approach to breeding.

Future focus

"For every panda here we have a genetic map. We can line up suitable partners come mating season based on what's best for gene-pool diversity," Hou said.

The prospective parents are then placed in separate pens where they can eye each other up while being monitored to see if there is there any chemistry between potential partners.

"You can tell if they like each other because they start bleating. It is a very distinctive noise," he said.

Ultimately the focus needs to be
on panda habitat preservation

Assuming all goes well, the female will also be given a series of artificial insemination injections, the result of which says Hou is to raise the prospect of conceiving from 60% to 90%.

At current rates, the centre will meet its target of 300 pandas within the next 20 years, at which point it will start considering how to take a panda used to the room-service attention of the nurses and teach it to fend for itself.

"Ultimately, the focus needs to be on habitat preservation," says Hou. "I can feel though that the public and government are paying this issue a great deal of attention and I remain hopeful a balance can be achieved between nature and development."

For the panda's sake, lets hope she's right.