China's Giant Panda Faces Extinction in 'Two to Three Generations'
China's giant pandas could be extinct in 'two to three generations' as the country's headlong rush for economic development destroys the animals' habitat, the WWF has warned.
The threat to the country's signature animal is caused by the increasing fragmentation of its living areas. This is making it difficult for different panda populations to inter-breed, said Fan Zhiyong, a leading conservationist and the species programme director for the World Wide Fund for Nature in China.
"If the panda cannot mate with those from other habitats, it may face extinction within two to three generations," Mr Fan told the state-run Global Times newspaper. "We have to act now."
Many Chinese panda populations are living in belts of bamboo less then a mile wide, leaving them dangerously vulnerable to human interference, he said.
In-breeding among pandas, who are notoriously selective when it comes to mating in captivity, leads to reduced resistance to disease and lower reproductive rates.
"The construction of highways at nature reserves permanently dissects the panda's habitat, obstructing migration, mating and healthy gene exchange," Mr Fan said.
"We may have to give up building some infrastructure or the panda will face a bigger threat to its existence than in 1980," he said.
Wild panda numbers dropped to as low as 1,000 in the late 1970s, but a painstaking conservation programme has increased numbers to around 1,600 today scattered across six mountain ranges in southwestern China.
However, according to WWF estimates, 43 per cent of panda habitats and 29 per cent of its population are not yet effectively protected by nature reserves and protected areas.
The conservation programme was suffered a set-back last year when the Wolong Reserve was devastated in the Sichuan earthquake. Restoring the reserve is now Mr Fan's top priority.