How Do You Count Pandas? One Dropping At A Time

A combination of new technology and time-tested tracking techniques has yielded encouraging news for the world’s panda lovers. The latest census of giant pandas living in the wild finds that 50 percent more pandas actually live in China than were previously thought to exist. China is the only place in the world where pandas live in the wild.

From World Wildlife Fund:

How Do You Count Pandas? One Dropping At A Time


Scientists Depend on High-Tech Gizmos and Old-Fashioned Detective Work

A combination of new technology and time-tested tracking techniques has yielded encouraging news for the world’s panda lovers. The latest census of giant pandas living in the wild finds that 50 percent more pandas actually live in China than were previously thought to exist. China is the only place in the world where pandas live in the wild.

The panda survey, conducted by World Wildlife Fund and the Chinese government, counted the total number of pandas living in the Chinese countryside almost 1,600 — nearly 50 percent more than the 1,000-1,100 pandas that were found in the last survey, in the late 1980s. Although the news is encouraging, scientists are quick to point out that pandas, which have become the universal symbol of endangered species, are still threatened with extinction and need protection.

“The first thing people always ask about an endangered species is, ‘How many are there?’ That’s a much harder question to answer than you would think,” said WWF scientist Colby Loucks. “With pandas and many other species, survival depends on staying hidden from people and predators, so counting them can be tricky. More important than the number of pandas is how to protect them and the places they live.”

Scientists conducted the panda survey by combining the best of 21st century technology with old-fashioned low-tech tracking skills. Counting pandas is a slow, tedious process. Scientists had to trek through the forest and up mountains, using their powers of observation to note a bit of panda fur left on the bark of a tree, a panda paw print in the mud or panda droppings. Panda locations were entered into global positioning system instruments (GPS) to create maps of habitat that should be protected.

Of all the clues left by the pandas, researchers relied most heavily on their droppings. Pandas eat up to 80 pounds of bamboo a day and because bamboo is difficult to digest, it retains the chew patterns of individual pandas even after digestion. Chinese researchers have determined that individual pandas have different average bite sizes, so by measuring the average bite size of the bamboo pieces in the droppings collected, survey teams were able to determine the number of pandas that produced the droppings left behind in each area.

“For all of our high-tech equipment, it still came down to having people in the field who knew their way around the woods and how to spot wildlife signs,” Loucks said.


The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Have a question? Let us know.

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