Illegal logging in panda sanctuaries in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan is destroying the world's largest habitat for the iconic creatures, an environmental group said in a report published this week.
The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is becoming fragmented by the loss of forest, putting pandas and other wildlife in danger, Greenpeace said in a report released online.
The reserve is home to around one-third of the existing world population of giant pandas, a creature that has come to symbolize China's wildlife and its soft power around the world.
After a two-year investigation into deforestation in the sanctuaries, Greenpeace found that some 3,200 acres of natural forest has been lost to forestry companies looking to grow profitable timber.
While Chinese law expressly forbids the clear cutting of any natural forest in Sichuan, the exploitation is being packaged by local authorities as "forest reconstruction," Greenpeace said in a statement issued along with the report.
"Loopholes in the regulations allow natural forest with enormous conservation value to be classified as ‘low-functioning’ forest," the group said.
"This means that pristine forests that are home to so much precious wildlife are being razed to the ground, with impunity."
The government has tried to crack down on the problem with a further ban on clear cutting of natural forests in 2012, but the move had little effect on the ground, it said.
According to the report, the destruction of its natural habitat is one of the biggest threats to the giant panda’s survival as a species, which need a mature forest habitat rich in food resources to survive across a large area in order to migrate and reproduce.
"Deforestation is happening in the heart of the Huangshuihe panda migratory corridor," Greenpeace said. "Migratory corridors like this are essential for ensuring healthy breeding patterns for panda bears."
It said similar patterns had been observed under the banner of "forest reconstruction" across China, with investigations revealing similar processes in southwestern Yunnan and eastern Zhejiang province.
"If this loophole isn’t closed, a third of China’s natural forests will remain exposed even after the nationwide expansion of the Natural Forest Protection Program in 2017," the group warned.
"China places much pride in the panda, but far from enough is being done to protect their habitat," the group's Forests Campaigner Wu Hao said in a blog post.
Falling victim to vested interests
U.S.-based author Zheng Yi, who has campaigned on behalf of environmental issues in the past, said the pandas are falling victim to a complex web of vested interests.
"This is a case of collusion between government and business and vested interests that result in the relevant departments turning a blind eye to actions that actually damage the local ecology and environment," Zheng told RFA in a recent interview.
Zheng said part of the problem is that panda protection is carried out largely at the expense of local people.
"Local people have to pay the price of panda protection, and there is inadequate protection from the government for this," Zheng said.
"Local people could gain much more from not protecting these animals, so ... they clear the natural forest and plant more profitable timber crops in its place."
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.