Cute, Cuddly, and Critically Endangered: Pandas and Orangutans Face Differing Futures

By Conor Gask

Breaking bread with the happiest panda in the world (Bifengxia Panda Breeding Centre) (Photo © Conor Gask)

Wolong Nature Reserve is a Chinese protected area located near the border with Tibet. It is the oldest, largest and most famous giant panda reserve in China, established in 1958 due to concerns over drastic losses of bamboo forest habitat. During a visit to Sichuan last February, I was fortunate enough to find a guide willing to drive me out on a day trip to the reserve, where a vast area of bamboo forest is now under fierce government protection. On an early morning I set off on a two-hour drive to the reserve with Fugui, a locally-born ethnic Tibetan who works at Panda Mountain, an organisation that runs multiple conservation projects in Wolong.

The road to Wolong Nature Reserve is treacherous. On May 12 2008 the Sichuan earthquake rocked the region, leaving 70,000 dead, 375,000 injured and displacing millions more across the province. Portions of bridges collapsed and large sections of the road were obliterated by rockslides. Fugui was unable to contact his family, who live out towards the reserve, for months. The only current access to the reserve exists in the form of makeshift roads plowed through the rubble, connected by tunnels able to withstand the disaster. Weaving through a steep-sided valley, there is still high risk from landslides, but Fugui assures me of his experience in both anticipating and avoiding the falling rocks, having driven the road daily for almost a decade.

The reserve was only seven miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, leading to the deaths of 5 staff members and discovery of 15 wild giant panda bodies. Reports suggested that up to 80% of wild bamboo habitat was affected by the earthquake, and many areas were buried under huge landslides. In the year following the earthquake, the future of the giant panda as a wild species was frequently questioned. BBC wildlife expert Chris Packham even went so far as to suggest, ‘Giant pandas should be allowed to die out’, arguing that the money was wasted conserving a species with not enough habitat left to save it. It was clear that the future of the giant panda was in jeopardy as a result of rapid habitat loss and fragmentation in China, and many researchers gave them only three generations until extinction.

Last month the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified the status of pandas from “endangered” to “vulnerable”, citing a 17 percent increase in wild adults to 1,864 over the last 10 years. This coincided with the announcement that four out of six great apes species are now “Critically Endangered” as a result of poaching and habitat destruction, including orangutans from both Borneo and Sumatra. It is estimated that total orangutan populations have decreased by 50% over the last 4 decades, with up to 3000 individuals killed every year during that period. With a business as usual approach, a further 22% loss is expected in the period 2010–2025, pushing the species to the brink of extinction.

Looking out over the Qionglai Mountains (邛崃山) of Wolong Nature Reserve. This region is rich in protected bamboo forest habitat and hosts 4000 different species, including over 150 giant pandas. Seeing a wild panda in this isolated environment is virtually impossible but the view more than makes up for it (Photo © Conor Gask)

How it is possible that the giant panda, a species that prefers non-nutritious bamboo as its main source of nutrition and has a yearly mating period of 2–4 days can recover so fast from the brink of extinction, whilst the orangutan, covering a much larger range in Southeast Asia, continues its catastrophic decline? There are similarities, after all,: Large, hairy, forest-dwelling mammals both with the ability to draw gasps of admiration from onlookers due to behaviour often described as ‘cute and cuddly’, whilst their distinctive looks ensure recognition on a global scale. They are also both solitary animals and live in dense, mountainous habitat, facing a variety of challenges including habitat loss, forest fragmentation and climate change.

It is resoundingly clear that orangutans face serious extinction threats, and now occupy a precarious position similar to that of the giant pandas back in 2009. The challenges panda conservationists face are easily comparable to those of the orangutans in Indonesia and Malaysia. A 2015 UNEP report concluded that by the year 2080 up to 80% if the orangutan population in Borneo could be lost, and downgrading orangutans’ status to Critically Endangered only emphasizes the impending crisis. But a downgrading of a species’ status also suggests that current conservation strategies are not having the desired effect, outbalanced by the factors driving further habitat loss. As critical forest habitat continues to shrink over the next few decades, the stress placed on orangutans will only intensify, increasing the risk of an irreversible decline. This is a point at which the options existing now, such as ecotourism, will no longer be viable.

However, the case of the giant panda offers an opportunity to reverse this tragic loss. The giant panda is revered in Chinese culture and history, with records stretching back to the Xizhou Dynasty (1027–771BC) that describe an invincible beast with the strength of a tiger. This cultural importance created a pathway through which huge conservation efforts could be mobilized. From 2009, the giant panda quickly became the face of Sichuan’s tourism sector, seen as the champion to revive an industry devastated by the earthquake, and this strategy appears to have worked. There are now 67 government-established panda reserves in China, protecting almost two-thirds of the global wild giant panda population, along with other iconic species such as red pandas, snow leopards and clouded leopards.

The ability of the giant panda to bring in funds for conservation in China is astounding. It now figures alongside The Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors as a must-see attraction, and stores across the country are packed to the brim with giant panda merchandise snapped up by eager tourists. Fugui went to study English at Chengdu University as a result and is now a trusted guide for increasing numbers of foreign visitors to the reserves. The giant panda still faces many challenges, no more than the huge threat climate change poses to bamboo habitat, but the success of a booming ecotourism industry is bringing in essential funds throughout the year to set up and maintain conservation efforts. The revised status of the giant panda proves that these efforts are bearing fruit and last year the 2015–2025 Giant Panda Protection Strategy was launched to target them as a flagship conservation species.

Even taxi companies in Chengdu city have remastered their vehicles to get in on the action (Translation: One day if a giant panda plans to find a job…) (Photo © Conor Gask)

The success of ecotourism is promising, and has already been seen in another great ape species: the Mountain gorillas that are found in Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. Mountain gorillas bring in millions in tourism revenue every year. In Rwanda, non-resident visitors pay USD 750 for a permit and last year, and in 2014 Rwanda reported $304 million gorilla-related tourism revenue, money which is needed to finance conservation and support local communities. Like the giant pandas, Mountain gorillas hold a significant cultural importance, and Rwanda even holds a special ceremony every year, Kwita Izina (“to give a name”), to name newly born babies, simultaneously raising awareness for Mountain gorillas on an international scale. National pride has surely played a vital role in driving giant panda and mountain gorilla conservation efforts, and this may be the key element which informs the success or failure of similar schemes in Malaysia and Indonesia.

There are obstacles facing the advent of a large-scale, functioning orangutan tourism industry, but then the challenges facing the giant pandas only seven years ago were just as extreme. Furthermore, the giant pandas you see are those housed in breeding and rehabilitation centres, not in the wild. In fact, Fugui has been visiting Wolong for 20 years and claims the closest he has come to seeing a wild giant panda is a fresh pile of poo, not an experience the average tourist would likely regard as value for money. In this case, issues of remoteness have been avoided. In 1925, the idea that establishing Virunga National Park, primarily for conserving Mountain gorillas, would bring in millions in tourism revenue would have seemed preposterous, but the vast benefits this industry has brought both to promoting peace and tourism revenues in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo are impressive. The role the orangutan could play in driving its own survival through large-scale tourism deserves consideration, having the potential to produce diverse economic, social and environmental benefits for Malaysia and Indonesia.

Adult and juvenile Pongo pygmaeus swinging through the trees of Borneo rainforest (Photo © HUTAN / Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme)

It is clear that there are important lessons to be taken from the successes of the giant pandas and Mountain gorillas, to help inform orangutan ecotourism management strategies going forward. The efficacy of a similar system in Indonesia and Malaysia is uncertain, so ensuring the input of experts from a wide range of backgrounds is essential. Nevertheless, the potential for orangutan ecotourism to provide large-scale protection and restoration of critical habitat cannot be overlooked. With the correct strategy, taking into account local economic, social and environmental factors, this precious species can not only be brought back from the brink of extinction, but also fund its own survival for decades to come. The meaning of ‘orangutan’ in Malay and Indonesian is ‘person of the forest’. Let’s not reach a point where both cease to exist.

Conor Gask is an Associate Programme Officer at the Great Apes Survival Partnership, a unique alliance of 105 national governments, research institutions, conservation organizations, U.N. agencies and private companies committed to the long-term survival of great apes and their habitat in Africa and Asia.

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