BEIJING (Reuters) - It is too soon to downgrade the conservation status of China's giant pandas as they still face severe threats, a leading conservationist said, after the International Union for Conservation of Nature took the species off its endangered list.
The giant panda has emerged as a success story for conservation in China whose cause has been championed right up to the highest levels in Beijing, where leaders often give the animal to other countries as a sign of friendship.
As of the end of 2015, China had 1,864 giant pandas in the wild, up from about 1,100 in 2000, with 422 in captivity, according to the government.
But on Sunday, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reclassified the species as "vulnerable" rather than "endangered", citing growing numbers in the wild due to decades of protection efforts.
Zhang Hemin, of the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda, known in China as the "father of pandas", told the official Xinhua news agency that this was a hasty move.
"A severely fragmented natural habitat still threatens the lives of pandas; genetic transfer between different populations will improve, but is still not satisfactory," Zhang said in a report late on Tuesday.
"Climate change is widely expected to have an adverse effect on the bamboo forests which provide both their food and their home. And there is still a lot to be done in both protection and management terms."
The wild giant panda population faced a lack of genetic diversity as it was broken up into 33 isolated groups, some of which had fewer than 10 individuals, Zhang said.
Of those 18 sub-populations with fewer than 10 pandas, all faced "a high risk of collapse", he added.
Only when the wild population could grow steadily without the addition of captive-bred pandas could the species be called less endangered, Zhang said.
"If the conservation status is downgraded, protection work might slacken off and both the panda population and their habitat are more likely to suffer irreversible loss," he added.
"The present protection achievements will be lost and some small sub-populations may die out."
Shi Xiaogang, of the Wolong National Nature Reserve in southwestern Sichuan province, China's main panda conservation centre, said pandas still needed continuous protection, according to Xinhua.
It was good China's efforts had been recognized. "But as conservators, we know that the situation of the wild panda is still very risky," Shi said.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)