Vera Villanueva

Could protecting pandas help prevent climate change? A study published in Nature Scientific Reports by researchers from the Chinese National Academy of Sciences, Rutgers University and Yale  University examined the connection between giant panda nature reserves and climate change mitigation.

Published on Oct. 5, the paper examined the amount of carbon sequestration, or removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, in more than 60 giant panda nature reserves in China.

Researchers then compared the carbon density in the organic matter of the reserves to that of the surrounding land over a period of several years and found that the reserves held substantially more carbon.

“[Giant pandas] are obviously a species of concern and are also one of the hallmark species of conservation,” said Ryan Powers, co-author of the study and postdoctoral fellow in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department.

Since scientists have tied increased levels of carbon in the atmosphere to climate change, environments that sequester carbon are important to climate change mitigation. When carbon is sequestered, it ends up stored in biomass, an umbrella term for all living organisms and the environments in which they live. The land designated for panda reserves not only aids in the conservation of the species but also provides protected land for the dense vegetation that comprises much of the carbon-sequestering biomass.

Beyond their main finding of increased carbon sequestration, the researchers identified a number of co-benefits associated with the panda habitats. Among the benefits were soil restoration, water purification, poverty reduction and increases in ecotourism, said Ming Xu, co-author of the study and a professor at Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

The study noted that improved carbon density in these reserves could be a result of control over terrain, climate and human disturbance, which are all features closely monitored in land designated for species conservation.

Xu added that the co-benefits illustrated by the study were not specific to the species of giant panda. The researchers chose to focus on the species due to its notoriety in the realm of conservation.

“Because of the broad public and government attention to them, their distribution is also quite well known, which helped develop the spatially detailed models and assessment required for this study,” said Walter Jetz, co-author of the study and associate professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department.

The Chinese government had focused on conservation of the species for many years before the study, so there was a selection of reserves available for data collection, according to Powers.

In addition to quantifying the reserves’ effects on carbon sequestration, the researchers also identified ways the reserves could be improved and factors that other governments might want to consider when constructing reserves for other species. For example, the paper said there should be a focus on preventing forest fragmentation in order to avoid isolating a population. The paper also suggested that governments consider appropriate forest structure and composition when creating and managing reserves.

Almost a year before the study was published, the status of the giant panda was downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable,” according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The downgrade marked a success for conservation efforts, but it was also concerning, Powers said.

“This could have harmful ramifications for panda conservation,” Powers said. “[We] can’t take our eye off the ball.”

The Chinese government is currently working to build a giant panda reserve three times the size of Yellowstone National Park, according to reports by the Chinese media.

Madison Mahoney | madison.mahoney@yale.edu