A study has found that conservation efforts in China geared towards protecting the giant panda in the wild have resulted in benefits for other threatened species as well, including amphibians, mammals and birds.

According to Stuart Pimm, China has a number of spectacularly protected areas teeming with species not found anywhere else on the globe, the most famous of which is the giant panda. The researchers wanted to see if the giant panda can function like a protective umbrella for others in protected areas since the animal's geographic range overlaps with 31 percent of amphibians, 70 percent of mammals and 70 percent of birds in the forests of mainland China, as well as identify other conservation areas and high-priority species that may have been neglected.

"Our study provides recommendations for which other areas in China should be set aside to protect species most effectively and efficiently," said Binbin Li, the study's lead author, affirming that there are holes in the coverage of certain species.

Li works with nature preserves in Sichuan's Min Shan Mountains to help park authorities in managing areas to protect giant pandas. For their study, she and Pimm came up with a comprehensive database tracking species distribution using maps put together by hundreds of naturalists. The maps show where amphibians, mammals and birds are in China but the researchers were particularly interested in species that are only found in the country.

Pimm explained that endemic species usually have small geographical ranges and have the highest tendency to go extinct. Based on their findings, they showed that most of the native species are located in southwestern China's mountains, specifically the Sichuan province, where giant pandas are now thriving because of the numerous nature preserves established for their protection.

Li said that there is concern that focusing on protecting giant pandas may be shining the spotlight away from other species but, it turns out, ensuring giant pandas are protected is also indirectly ensuring the protection of others.

Li and Pimm created a new map using statistical modeling and geospatial analysis to predict mountain locations where endemic species will have the best chance of surviving. Once they were able to identify specific spots, the researchers overlaid the information onto a map of nature preserves currently existing and saw that areas offering the best kind of protection for endemic species coincided with those best for giant pandas as well. The final map also revealed gap species, or those living in areas not currently set aside for protecting giant pandas.

Li and Pimm recommend establishing new protected areas in the region to not just expand protection for giant pandas but to also give gap species better chances of survival.

Photo: Gill Penney | Flickr

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