Umbrella Effect of Pandas

Chinese measures to protect this conservation icon have also benefited a number of other threatened species, including birds, mammals and amphibians.

Young Panda Playing Image: By User:jballeis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

An “umbrella species” is defined as a species whose protection indirectly protects many other species within an ecosystem. A new study published in Conservation Biology has proven that the giant panda is one such species. Chinese measures to protect this conservation icon have also benefited a number of other threatened species, including birds, mammals and amphibians.

Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University and co-author of the study explains: “China has spectacular protected areas with exceptional numbers of species found nowhere else on Earth. The giant panda is the most famous of these – a global conservation icon. We wanted to know whether it serves as a protective umbrella for other species. We found that the giant panda’s geographical range overlaps with 70 percent of forest bird species, 70 percent of forest mammals, and 31 percent of forest amphibian species found only in mainland China.”

But the study also identifies other high-priority species and conservation areas that have so far been neglected. “There are gaps in the coverage of some species,” said Binbin Li, the paper’s lead author and a Ph.D. student working with Pimm. “Our study provides recommendations for which other areas in China should be set aside to protect species most effectively and efficiently.”

Li and Pimm used maps compiled by hundreds of naturalists to create a comprehensive database of species distributions to show where species of birds, amphibians and mammals occur in the country, particularly endemics species. The maps revealed that most of these native species were concentrated in the mountains of southwestern China, especially in the province of Sichuan – where the giant panda now survives and where many nature preserves were created to protect them. “Many people have worried that in protecting the giant panda, we might be neglecting other species, but this isn’t the case,” Li said.

Using geospatial analysis and statistical modelling, the authors created a new map that predicated the locations within Sichuan where each endemic species could best survive. Remote sensing was then used to identify specific areas where vital forest habitat remained. This information was overlaid onto a map of existing nature preserves.

This provided specific predictions of which locations offered protection to the giant panda, but also the greatest number of species. It also identified “gap species” – those that live in areas currently not set aside to protect pandas. These were areas that were either not given the highest level of protection, or were not protected at all. This research has enabled the authors to make recommendations on how to improve protection of all species and the places they inhabit.

“There is great hope in the future. While the government and the public keep focusing on pandas, it is easier to establish new protected areas and corridors in this region. It gives us the chance to protect the most important areas for other native species while protecting more panda habitats,” says Li.

Pimm adds: “China has rapidly increased the areas it protects for wildlife, and the facilities of many nature reserves are impressive. Many more Chinese and international visitors are going to these areas, testifying to the appeal of their scenery and wildlife. China also supports international conventions committed to expanding protected areas. We hope the results of our work will help both regional and national authorities select the best areas for a wide variety of China’s species.”


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