Giant pandas inhabit the montane forests of central China, which still contains large tracts of intact forest landscapes (IFLs) and features protected areas. However, the IFLs are being whittled away by human activity, with several sections degraded since 2000. Graphic: Global Forest Watch

By Apoorva Joshi
27 January 2015

(mongabay.com) – Since the 1950s, plantations and second-growth forests in China have been locally managed by village communities as collective forests, which today account for 58 percent of China's forestland. Many of these collective forests lie within mountainous rural areas, some of which are also home to the 1,600 or so wild giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) that survive today.

While much of the panda’s habitat – 63 reserves – is protected by the Chinese government, what is left of the endangered conservation icon’s home faces threats from a piece of legislation originally introduced in 2008 that would allow up to 1.8 million square kilometers of forest to be sold, and open as much as 15 percent of the giant panda’s remaining habitat to outside commercial enterprises and unmanaged tourism. These recent forest tenure reform policies could allow commercial logging, increased collection of firewood and non-timber forest products, as well as other industrial development activities by third parties that were previously restrained.

A 2013 letter published in the journal Science was co-authored by President of Conservation International, Dr. Russell Mittermeier and Li Zhang, a scientist with Conservation International China. The new forest tenure reform, the letter said, could open up key areas including panda habitat to commercial logging and increased firewood extraction. It would also make these areas vulnerable to conversion by allowing collectively owned land to be transferred or leased out to third-party commercial enterprises.

All forests in China are state-owned. A 2009 report from the World Forest Institute explains although there are no privately-owned forests in China, villages can allocate the right to use small plots of land within collective forests to individuals and households, who can harvest them for timber, firewood, food, medicine and other products that are essential for the villagers’ livelihoods.

Since the 1980s, China has acted to protect the panda, making it a symbol of conservation success when the species rose from fewer than 1,000 individuals at the time to around 1,600 today, according to the latest estimates. But while communities in the country’s rural areas attempt to manage these second-growth and plantation forests, rapidly expanding timber and paper industries are beginning to encroach on collective forests.

Data from Global Forest Watch show only 6 percent of China’s forests are primary, with 57 percent regenerated and 37 percent planted. China holds the world's top spot not only in population size but also in greenhouse gas emissions. In 2013, China produced 29 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, with 7.2 tons per person compared to the EU's 6.8 tons per person. However, this may be on the decline, with data from the Food and Agriculture Organization indicating land use change and forestry sequestered 2.8 percent of China’s emissions in 2011.

Now extinct in Vietnam and Myanmar, the giant panda's only home is in China’s montane forests. Currently, the species is found in three provinces – Sichuan, Gansu and Shanxi - with 45 percent of wild pandas inhabiting the Minshan Mountains of Shanxi, and another 20 percent in the province's Qinling Mountans. According to the IUCN, restricted and degraded habitat is the greatest threat to the species. Based on data from Global Forest Watch, these provinces collectively lost approximately 157,000 hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2012 – although some of that loss may be due to plantation harvesting. Panda habitat is also home to a host of other threatened species like the golden snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana), the endangered crested ibis (Nipponia nippon) and the takin (Budorcas taxicolor). [more]

China’s recent forest tenure reforms threaten panda habitat

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