Hong Kong The panda population at one of China's most prestigious nature parks has declined dramatically over the preserve's quarter-century existence and the area's very status as a renowned sanctuary is at least partly to blame, according to a study conducted by an international group of scientists.
The number of wild pandas in the Wolong Nature Reserve in southwestern China's Sichuan province dropped by half from 145 to 72 during the park's first 11 years, and the current population is probably even smaller, say the authors of the study, headed by Michigan State University wildlife expert Jianguo Liu.
The report's findings were published Thursday in the international journal Science.
With its distinct black-and-white coloring, the giant panda now widely accepted in scientific circles to be a member of the bear family is one of the best-recognized and rarest of animals. The pandas in Wolong constitute about 7 percent of the world's remaining population, most of which is in China.
Liu's team found that an important cause of the decline in numbers at Wolong was the destruction of the densely forested land and bamboo undercover that make up high-quality panda habitats.
Far more strikingly, researchers also found that these prime habitats within the reserve are disappearing as fast or even faster than in unprotected areas outside the park.
Among the reasons for this apparent contradiction is tourism.
The lure of economic gain from catering to tourists, such as hotel jobs and souvenir sales, has helped spur human population growth within the park, the study found. During Wolong's first 20 years, from 1975 to 1995, the number of households within its boundaries more than doubled to slightly more than 900.
"Tourists come, they take their summer vacations there and stimulate the local economy, which in turn uses more local natural resources," Liu said. "We don't see ourselves as a destructive force, but we are."