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Giant panda no longer ‘endangered’ — what does that mean?

One of the iconic animals of conservation efforts and species preservation is the giant panda. That’s in part because it is one of many animals that have had their existence threatened by human expansion, but also because of how pandas look.

While you wouldn’t actually want to get close to a giant panda, they do look snuggly and cute from a distance. We often care more about the snuggly and cute animals, whether we should or not.

This year, the giant panda was taken off of the endangered species list. That’s a big deal. The giant panda has been moved to the vulnerable category instead of endangered, which is something to celebrate.

The giant panda used to be considered “rare.” In the 1990s and throughout the 2000s and 2010s until now, it was classified as “endangered.”

You’re probably asking yourself, “what does that mean?” Or perhaps, “who decides what endangered means and what vulnerable means?”

The answer to the second question is The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN puts together its Red List of Threatened Species, which you can see in its entirety at iucnredlist.org. The Red List has lots of great information on different animals, including their red list category, which is where the different classifications such as “endangered” and “vulnerable” come from.

The lowest-risk category for species on the Red List is “least concern,” which means we’re not really concerned with their population numbers right now.

Next is “near threatened.” These species are doing OK, but the IUCN is keeping an eye on them, so to speak.

Above that is “vulnerable,” the category where you can now find the giant panda. This means the species is at risk of becoming endangered based on its population numbers. Vulnerable species should be monitored more closely for threats to their existence.

As we know from watching the giant panda’s status improve, the next worst category is “endangered.” These species are at the point where if humans don’t intervene to stop threats or provide safe habitats, it’s likely they will go extinct. Some animals currently listed as endangered include white-bellied spider monkeys, tiger chameleons, and creeping birds of paradise.

Beyond “endangered” is “critically endangered,” which means humans are almost out of time to save the species as it exists in its native habitats in the wild. Four out of six great apes are currently listed as critically endangered.

Finally, it’s possible for species to be listed as “extinct in the wild” and then ultimately, “extinct.

Animals that are extinct in the wild only continue to exist in zoos, sanctuaries and other human-managed wildlife areas where breeders hope to keep the species around and eventually grow the numbers enough to return some to the wild. This is incredibly tragic because this is really the last chance for these animals. There have been success stories like the Przewalski horse, which was reintroduced into the wild after being extinct in the wild, but not all species are so lucky.

Once a species is extinct, it’s the end of the story. There’s no coming back from extinct. No one will ever again see a living dodo, passenger pigeon, tasmanian tiger or west African black rhino. As sad as that is, it’s even sadder if we continue to add to the extinct list by not guarding against the effects of careless human behavior. It would be terrible if our children grew up learning about giant pandas like we grew up learning about wooly mammoths.

There are real things you can do to help these animals. One thing you can do is decrease your carbon footprint. Walk more; drive less; plant trees. Be aware of what you purchase and make sure you are buying sustainable wood products and sustainable palm oil to ensure you are not causing habitat loss. You’re almost definitely not someone who poaches endangered animals, but you should also make sure you are not accidentally endorsing this terrible practice. Don’t purchase items made from animal products including tusks, teeth, feathers and fur.

Amanda’s Animal Fact of the Week

Giant pandas spend about 12 hours a day eating. Bamboo shoots and leaves make up about 99% of their diet.

About Amanda Wheeler

Amanda Wheeler is the children and teen services librarian at the Lincoln County Public Library. She has a master's in zoology education from the University of Miami and has taught as an educator at the Cincinnati Zoo.

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