By Morgan Hartlein Allen
In 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – the global authority that establishes the status of threatened species – made a controversial decision to downgrade the Giant Panda from “endangered” to “vulnerable.”
The IUCN added the Giant Panda to its Red List of Threatened Species in the 1980s after its population fell to an estimated 1,000 animals, owing largely to overhunting and habitat loss. The panda’s natural distaste for mating left the population with a seemingly bleak future and in need of protection, the organization determined.
By 2014, however, its numbers in the wild had increased to 1,864, according to a nationwide census in China, which the IUCN pointed to as a rationale for the status change. Rigorous breeding programs and protective policies had brought the species back to life.
“This story tells us conservation works,” the IUCN’s then-Director General Inger Anderson said, heralding the news as hope for other endangered species.
A day before the Giant Panda’s new status was officially announced in September 2016, journalist Shi Yi attended a news briefing at the IUCN World Conservation Congress on the updated Red List. Yi, a China-based journalist attending the congress as a Fellow with the Earth Journalism Network’s Biodiversity Media Initiative, noted the Giant Panda’s new status and believed it would cause a stir in her home country. She immediately got to work writing an article.
“It’s a symbolic animal in China,” said Yi. “Everyone loves it [and] everything related to it. You know people will click, and they love to watch panda videos.”
The IUCN’s assessment report on the panda’s new status lauded the change as a measure of success while also cautioning against complacency.
“Whereas the decision to downlist the Giant Panda to Vulnerable is a positive sign confirming that the Chinese government's efforts to conserve this species are effective, it is critically important that these protective measures are continued and that emerging threats are addressed,” the report stated.
Yet others found the downgrade unexpected and believed it to be premature. When Yi presented the article for publication in Sixth Tone, a Shanghai-based online magazine, her editor skeptically asked, “Are you sure?”, disbelieving that Giant Pandas had overcome their brush with extinction.
The State Forestry Administration (SFA), the organization responsible for overseeing animal conservation efforts in China, also expressed skepticism at the downgrade of the Giant Panda’s status. The SFA was concerned that the relabeling would lead to the misconception that panda conservation efforts could now be reduced.
Although the number of Giant Pandas had increased in the years since it was listed as endangered, its habitat had dwindled and its low reproductive rate remained a problem. Most pandas living in the wild separate into groups of as few as 10 bears, thus reducing the gene pool and damaging the longevity of the species. As a result, human intervention through assisted breeding programs is still considered necessary. The groups must be monitored to ensure they intermingle.
Yi’s article helped bring national attention to concerns like those expressed by the SFA, which felt the move by the IUCN could be detrimental to the panda’s survival. Her story also garnered attention from other Chinese media outlets, which then published follow-up articles on why Giant Pandas should be protected.
Where thing stands now
The news reports did not lead the IUCN to change the panda’s status, but the Chinese government has taken new steps to protect the “vulnerable” species. In 2017, Beijing unveiled a plan to build a 10,476-square mile national park – three times the size of Yellowstone – in the Sichuan Basin, southeast of the Tibetan Plateau. The park, heading towards establishment this year, would restore the species’ genetic diversity by connecting currently fragmented groups of pandas so they could breed with one another.
The park would also ensure that the animals have a steady supply of bamboo – a resource threatened by rising temperatures due to climate change.
Beyond the national discussion Yi’s story helped ignite, she felt a personal impact as well. Attending the IUCN World Conservation Congress, she said, gave her a deeper understanding of how environmental protection systems function, something she believes is an important experience for journalists, particularly those from China.
Since national media is the primary source of information for Chinese citizens, not many Chinese journalists attend international events, Yi said. Yet if Yi, an independent reporter, had not attended the Congress, the downlisting might not have received the amount of attention it did. Given the IUCN’s commendation of the Chinese government’s conservation efforts, it would have been in the interest of state-run media to promote the downlisting as a blanket success.
By not working for state media, Yi had more leeway to write the stories she had access to at the IUCN’s international gathering. What she needed was the funding provided by EJN to get there.
In 2016, the same year she attended the congress, Yi won the Journalist of the Year Award at the China Environmental Press Awards for her work investigating rhino horn and ivory trafficking links in South Africa. She continues to write for independent media outlets such as Sixth Tone as well as its sister organization The Paper, and Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, one of EJN’s partners.