Giant panda taken off endangered species list

On March 10, giant pandas Bai Yun and Gao Gao were given physical access to each other for their first breeding attempt since 2012. (Photo taken on March 10, 2015, by Tammy Spratt, San Diego Zoo)

On March 10, giant pandas Bai Yun and Gao Gao were given physical access to each other for their first breeding attempt since 2012. (Photo taken on March 10, 2015, by Tammy Spratt, San Diego Zoo)

SAN DIEGO — The giant panda has been taken off of the endangered species list for the first time in more than 20 years, thanks to conservation efforts by the San Diego Zoo in conjunction with the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

World conservation leaders made the announcement this weekend and have upgraded the giant panda to “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. That means while threats to pandas’ survival remain high, indicators show the species is in less danger of extinction than before and conservation efforts are working.

“While we do not believe the giant panda is completely safe, our IUCN Red List evaluation highlights how far we have come in panda conservation,” said Ron Swaisgood, director of applied animal ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

As chair of the IUCN’s Giant Panda Expert Team, Swaisgood was the primary author of the evaluation report and was responsible for integrating the data that led to the listing decision.

“This iconic species, which is the poster child of endangered species globally, no longer qualifies as endangered,” Swaisgood said. “All the trends support this conclusion: Habitat is increasing and the population is growing.”

The announcement came during the IUCN World Conservation Congress — the largest and most comprehensive environmental decision-making forum in the world — after the panda conservationist committee submitted its findings.

Current data shows that the policies put in place by the Chinese government to protect both pandas and their habitat are having promising outcomes, increasing the species’ population. Almost 2,000 giant pandas are now believed to exist in the wild, and a majority of those individuals are adults.

International teams of scientific researchers, including those from San Diego Zoo Global, provided much of the scientific foundation that allowed the Chinese government to move forward with effective conservation actions.

Conservationists say this dramatic turnaround for the giant panda gives hope that conservation efforts can pay off for other endangered species.

“After spending almost two decades as part of the San Diego Zoo’s giant panda team, it is incredibly exciting to see that conservation efforts for giant pandas are having a positive impact,” said Megan Owen, associate director for applied animal ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

“The story of hope that this down-listing tells is a reminder that if we work together, we can recover species from the brink of extinction,” Owen said

“Hope is fundamentally a call to action, and the panda’s story is one that I hope will serve to inspire increased collaborative efforts to save many, many more species, she said.