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Study: China failing to protect panda preserve

Giant panda  

EAST LANSING, Michigan (CNN) -- Talk about timing.

While U.S. and Chinese government officials square off over an incident involving a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter, a joint U.S.-Chinese research team is faulting China's efforts to save the giant panda from possible extinction.

The study, funded by the U.S. government, will be released Friday in the journal Science. Researchers from Michigan State University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the China-based Center for Giant Panda Research and Conservation analyzed satellite photos the 500,000-acre Wolong Nature Preserve, taken from 1965 to 1997.

Are pandas really bears?

"Pandas are mammals and are part of the bear family. They're most genetically similar to bears, although they branched off of the bear line about 3 million years ago."

- National Zoo curator Lisa Stevens

They have concluded that the preserve, created in 1975 to help increase the panda population, has instead seen a startling increase in human population and deforestation and an decrease in panda population.

From 1975 to 1995, the human population in the preserve has increased 70 percent, a rise that bests population increases in some areas lying outside the preserve in China's Sichuan province. The population rise has led to more trees being cut down for fuel, farming and road work.

The panda population in the preserve has plummeted from 145 in 1974 to 72 in 1986.

No current figure on panda population in the area is available, but Michigan State University biologist Jianguo Liu, the lead researcher on the project, said the population is most likely lower.

"Human destruction is the most critical factor in the fate of the pandas," Liu said. "If biodiversity cannot be protected in protected areas, where can we protect biodiversity?"

Liu said if the current conditions are not changed, he foresees a time when pandas no longer exist in the wild.

"A few decades would allow that to happen, we don't know how many," Liu told Reuters.

Liu admitted he was surprised by the findings.

"We always perceived that if you designate a protected area, then they (the pandas) are safe," he told The Associated Press.

Liu proposed a solution to the problem: Educate the ethnic minority groups -- mostly Tibetan -- inside the preserve, in the hope that young people might voluntarily leave the area for jobs in China cities.

The report comes on the heels of the World Wildlife Federation's warning that the panda might still face extinction due to destruction of the mountain forest homes and bamboo supplies it needs to survive.

The wild panda population is estimated at 1,000.

The report also comes at a time when diplomatic relations between the United States and China are strained over Sunday's collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. spy plane over the South China Sea. The incident resulted in the loss of the fighter pilot and his jet.

The U.S. plane was forced to land on the Chinese island of Hainan, and Chinese officials have refused to allow the plane or its crew to return.

But officials connected with the release of the panda report say it was not timed to coincide with the current crisis.

Funders of the study include the U.S. National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health.

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Landsat images of the Wolong Reserve
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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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