In the final days of a year that has become known for a number of celebrity deaths, 2016 struck again. The Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported this week that what is thought to be the world's oldest male panda has died in China at the age of 31 — around 100 in human years.
Pandas are notoriously difficult to breed, but Pan Pan was known for his virility. He has been dubbed the "panda grandpa" for his many offspring. Pan Pan first became a father in 1991 and according to reports now has more than 130 descendants populating zoos worldwide, accounting for 25 percent of the world's captive pandas. The Smithsonian National Zoo currently has three of Pan Pan's descendants: Tian Tian, who is Pan Pan's son, and Bao Bao and Bei Bei, his grandchildren.
Earlier this year giant pandas were removed from the endangered species list as a result of Chinese conservation efforts. That is good news for pandas, says Jianguo Liu, a scientist at Michigan State University who works on sustainability, but the work is far from finished.
"I think the pandas in captivity and in the zoos will be helpful to educate people about the importance of conservation," Liu says. "I think they're not in conflict, and I think they are to a large degree complementary," he adds of breeding programs and conservation efforts. However, protecting the environment remains far more essential for conservation than breeding pandas in captivity.
"We pay attention to the pandas in captivity like Pan Pan," Liu says. But "it's important to keep in mind, climate change is the long-term threat to the pandas in the future." The International Union for Conservation of Nature warned in September that climate change is projected to eliminate 35 percent of the pandas' bamboo habitat in the next 80 years.
"The [Chinese] government has made a huge effort to minimize deforestation, to reforest, to plant trees and protect the natural forest," Liu says. "That's great. But that's not enough." He adds that the whole world, not just China, must make addressing climate change a priority if the conservation effort is to be successful long term.
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