We’ve got good news and bad news about your favorite cuddly mammal.
The good news is pandas are no longer considered an endangered species.
The bad news is that change might not mean much at all.
On Sunday, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources announced that it had changed the extinction risk of giant pandas from “endangered” to “vulnerable.” This news came in a larger update of its “Red List,” which determines the extinction risk of thousands of animals.
While this announcement sounds like good news, with the IUCN noting in their announcement that the change “shows conservation action is delivering positive results,” a downgrade in extinction risk status doesn’t mean a species is safe.
In the case of the giant panda, for instance, “vulnerable” is simply the lowest-risk subcategory of the IUCN’s “threatened” umbrella category. The IUCN’s official explanation of their criteria notes that species listed as “vulnerable” face a “high risk” of extinction in the wild, whereas taxon listed as “endangered” face a “very high risk” of extinction in the wild.
When taking into account population size, habitat size, and population decline, animals listed as “vulnerable” still stand around a 10% chance of extinction in the wild within 100 years, according to the IUCN.
In addition, specialized organizations often contest the IUCN’s ratings. Zhang Hemin, a representative of China’s Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, reportedly told China’s state-run Xinhua news agency that the downgrade was a hasty move.
"A severely fragmented natural habitat still threatens the lives of pandas,” he said in a report. “Genetic transfer between different populations will improve, but is still not satisfactory.”
Essentially, a change in “Red List” status or other endangered species list often doesn’t mean an animal is safe. In fact, the IUCN still recommended aggressive action by the Chinese government to protect pandas in their report.
Humpback whales provide a similar case study. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced yesterday that humpback whale populations had recovered enough that they no longer need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. But Angela Somma, chief of NOAA Fisheries’ endangered species division, told reporters that “very little will actually change” in their whale-protection efforts.