MICHIGAN STATE (US)—Most of the existing suitable panda habitat is outside nature reserves and areas where the panda is reported to live, according to a new study.

“This research can help the Chinese government and international nongovernmental organizations develop comprehensive strategic plans for more effective conservation of the panda,” says Jianguo “Jack” Liu, professor of fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University.

“Overall, about 40 percent of the suitable habitat for pandas is inside the nature reserves,” says Andrés Viña, a specialist with the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

“Our model also identified potentially suitable habitat outside the currently accepted geographic range of the panda.”

The research is published in the journal Biological Conservation.

The giant panda is the rarest member of the bear family, once ranging throughout most of China, northern Vietnam, and northern Myanmar. Currently, fewer than 1,600 giant pandas live in the wild in three Chinese provinces: Gansu, Shaanxi, and Sichuan.

Human actions—including logging, residential development, and the expansion of farming—are considered the main reasons for the dramatic contraction of the giant panda’s habitat.

Researchers developed habitat models using geographical/environmental information gathered by satellites overlaid with information on panda occurrence. After analyzing the six mountain regions in the three provinces where pandas are known to live, the scientists developed a habitat suitability index for the entire 48,328-square-mile area.

The range-wide habitat analysis model gives governments and other agencies a new tool as they develop conservation strategies and priorities—and can be used for many other endangered species.

“The Chinese government plans to add approximately 69,500 square miles of land to the country’s nature reserve system between 2010 and 2020,” says Zhiyun Ouyang, director of the Lab of Urban and Regional Ecology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

“So opportunities exist to create new reserves, to expand existing reserves and to create corridors that increase the connectivity among the reserves. Based on our results, we suggest some new areas to be included in China’s nature reserve system.”

The research is supported by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

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