Impact of Livestock on Giant Pandas and Their Habitat
The expansion of farming is changing the world and our environment in many ways; one of which is the significant alteration to the landscape. The expansion of grazing lands for farmed animals into the habitats of wild animals can have a profound effect on their ability to live naturally and find food. This study from Wolong Nature Reserve in China examines how domesticated horses grazing in areas of the park have impacted giant pandas living there. The research finds that as grazing lands for farmed animals expand, they push giant pandas out, and have a detrimental effect on the pandas’ ability to survive and find food.
The impact and growth of farming animals is “one of the most significant drivers of global land use, [and] a fast growing economic sector currently affecting 23 of the 35 global biodiversity hotspots.” The expansion of grazing lands can significantly impact the survival of wild animals and unbalance ecosystems, as farmed animals compete with wildlife for limited food and space. Giant pandas are “a large herbivorous mammal and international symbol for biodiversity conservation,” yet they are one such animal affected by farming. There are approximately 1600 wild pandas native to the forests of southwestern China. Even though over 60 nature reserves having been established to protect them, pandas are still impacted by human activities, such as farming, road construction, and timber harvesting. “Despite the recorded prevalence of livestock across giant panda habitat, research on the nature of the impacts on pandas and their habitat is limited to a small number of case studies in the Chinese literature,” say the authors of this study. They note that “many questions remain” regarding the dynamic between pandas and farmed animals, and their paper is an attempt to better understand the factors at play, and their impact.
Following three different domestic horse herds and nearby panda populations, the researchers found that in many cases, horse grazing and panda habitats overlapped in numerous ways, with at least 50% of the horse herds’ home ranges being located in highly suitable panda habitat. Furthermore, “all herds, except Qicenglou, were distributed completely within the predicted probability distribution of giant pandas.” Giant pandas are “obligate bamboo eaters,” and it is clear from the study that horses had an observable impact on arrow bamboo in the range studied. In one area, researchers estimated that “the horses foraged more than 20% of the bamboo in 18 of the 49 plots, with 5 of those plots experiencing more than 75% bamboo foraged by horses.” In another location, they estimated that “horses foraged more than 20% of bamboo in 28 of the 57 plots and over 75% of the bamboo in 2 plots.” The authors describe this situation as part of an “emerging threat to the endangered giant panda and its habitat: livestock grazing.”
Though the researchers note that there is “a directive in place requiring livestock to be kept within designated grazing areas inside of giant panda nature reserves, our observations suggest that this rule is not always operational on the ground.” Indeed, they point out that the situation in other, “unprotected” areas may be “more serious.” The authors propose that management could be better executed through something called “Coupled Human and Natural System (CHANS) so that the complex interactions between people and nature are fully appreciated. […] It may be possible to link livestock management efforts with other successful conservation incentive programs implemented across China by providing monetary incentives to local farmers for participating in conservation.” For advocates, this worrying look at wildlife serves as further evidence of the vast, negative impact of animal farming.
Livestock production is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity worldwide. However, impacts of livestock on endangered species have been understudied, particularly across the livestock–wildlife inter- face in forested protected areas. We investigated the impact of an emerging livestock sector in China’s renowned Wolong Nature Reserve for giant pandas. We integrated empirical data from field surveys, remotely sensed imagery, and GPS collar tracking to analyze (1) the spatial distribution of horses in giant panda habitat, (2) space use and habitat selection patterns of horses and pandas, and (3) the impact of horses on pandas and bamboo (panda’s main food source). We discovered that the horse distribution overlapped with suitable giant panda habitat. Horses had smaller home ranges than pandas but both species showed similarities in habitat selection. Horses consumed considerable amounts of bamboo, and may have resulted in a decline in panda habitat use. Our study highlights the need to formulate policies to address this emerging threat to the endangered giant panda. It also has implications for understanding livestock impacts in other protected areas across the globe.