Protecting Panda Habitat Can Generate Community Income

China recently reformed its collective forest policy, allowing forest owners to grant management rights to outside enterprises. In a letter published last week in the journal Science, Li (Aster) Zhang and other CI scientists propose that “eco-compensation” would bring more income to local communities while protecting habitat for the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca).

wild giant panda in Changqing National Nature Reserve

Camera trap photo of wild giant panda in Changqing National Nature Reserve. Thanks largely to efforts of the Chinese government, the wild panda populations have increased from fewer than 1,000 in the late 1980s to nearly 1,600 today. (© CI/ Changqing National Nature Reserve)

In early spring of 2010, my colleagues Russ Mittermeier, Biao Yang and I visited Changqing National Nature Reserve, one of the famous panda protected areas in Shanxi Province. There, we saw a young male panda in the wild. He was so shy, just showing his black-and-white coat for a couple of seconds before disappearing into the dense bamboo forest in front of us.

Beloved by the world for centuries, the panda once lived across large areas of China as well as parts of Vietnam and Myanmar. However, this magnificent creature is now confined to just 21,000 square kilometers (8,100 square miles) in a few isolated mountain forests in southwest China — an area smaller than El Salvador or the state of New Hampshire.

The Chinese government has made enormous strides to conserve the giant panda, including:

  • Designating 63 panda reserves;
  • Upgrading threatened habitats by reforesting or restoring native forests, and limiting human access;
  • Increasing the number and conservation skills of forestry staff;
  • Strictly banning hunting of the species; and
  • Pioneering captive breeding techniques.

As a result of these efforts, the official count of giant pandas in the wild has increased from fewer than 1,000 in the late 1980s to nearly 1,600 today.

However, these achievements in giant panda conservation are now being jeopardized by recent tenure reform of China’s 167 million hectares (413 million acres) of collective forest as we reported in the recent issue of Science.

Under China’s current property law, the reform would enable collective forest owners to transfer the rights to their forest to outside private sector companies and timber enterprises. As a result, commercial logging, increased collection of firewood and non-timber forest products, unregulated tourism and certain types of industrial development may take place in collective forests at far higher levels than before.

These potential threats may cause deforestation, degradation or disturbance up to 345,700 hectares (more than 850,000 acres) of giant panda habitat, or 15% of what remains.

It’s true that the reform policy may benefit individual farmers through income earned by selling their collective forest for commercial use. However, other compensation approaches could pay local people as much or more while preserving these key corridors of panda habitat.

Back in July 2011, I remember discussing these issues with Russ and Biao. We were concerned about how these reforms might impact China’s panda population. The following year, Jonah Busch visited China and became involved, conducting an economic study to figure out how much “eco-compensation” funding would be needed to lease those collective forests for panda conservation.

China has spent more than US$ 100 billion on “eco-compensation” to buy back development rights from local communities in order to secure the continued provision of ecosystem services like freshwater provision and erosion prevention in Qinghai, Gansu, Inner Mongolia and some other provinces in southwest China. Under this system, communities sign long-term binding conservation agreements for forest habitat outside of existing reserves in exchange for monetary compensation from the government.

This system is already in practice in places like Kaihua in Zhejiang province, where the county government is paying landowners US$ 70 per hectare per year for 48 years to maintain 6,300 hectares (15,600 acres) of collective forest in Gutianshan National Nature Reserve.

Extending the eco-compensation program to giant panda habitat could reduce the threat that tenure reform poses to the giant panda while fulfilling the reform’s goal of increasing local economic benefits. Based on a simple model of the relationship between habitat area and giant panda population, we estimated that US$ 240 million in effective eco-compensation payments could prevent a decline in the wild giant panda population from 1,596 to 1,378. An additional US$ 2.25 billion for effective eco-compensation and habitat restoration could increase the population to 2,234 — a jump that would cause the species to be downgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List criteria.

We hope that our letter to Science will raise more public awareness about this issue, as well as convince the Chinese government that it is possible to benefit local communities without further endangering one of the country’s most iconic species.

Li (Aster) Zhang is the technical director of CI-China.


  1. Jessie Douglas says

    I fully support thus article’s program of extending the eco-compensation program to the giant panda’s reserves. Why choose to support people, of which there are 7 billion over only 1600 pandas? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

  2. Aster says

    Thank you for your comments. It’s not only for 1600 pandas, which is a flag species for conservation, but also for all other species as well as local people living in those 850k acres nature forest that secures a health ecosystem and its function.

  3. jennifer says

    Says it all..”Extending the eco-compensation program to giant panda habitat could reduce the threat that tenure reform poses to the giant panda while fulfilling the reform’s goal of increasing local economic benefits.”

    So please and after all the hard work building Panda numbers…don’t lose the momentum; please don’t take this backward, outmoded, destructive choice…

  4. Jérôme (Chengdu Pambassador) says

    Thanks Li for this explanation and for alerting us about the threat of this reform for the giant panda and its habitat. You’re right, eco-compensation, like grain-to-green program, are good tools for conservation and for a co-management with local communities.
    Is this the end of the ban on commercial logging launched in 1998 ?
    I will write today an article in french on my website ( to talk about your open letter.

  5. Aster says

    Hi Jerome, I don’t think its the end of the commercial logging ban. However, it may stimuli the increase of human activities in these panda habitat. But as a coin has two sides, the government of China and conservation groups can also purchase the forest and lease the land from those collective forest owners for conservation.

  6. Jérôme (Chengdu Pambassador) says

    Hi Li. Thanks for your reply. I searched some informations about this reform of collective forest. I read on FAO website that this collective forest tenure reform is currently a pilot project in 16 villages (in 6 provinces). Is this always a pilot project or is the experimentation implemented in all provinces (included Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi where wild pandas live) ?
    I published an article yesterday about this reform and its potential impact on wild pandas and their habitat :

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  8. kristy says

    I don’t think this website answers my question…my question was what other population is there in the pandas community?

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