The giant panda, one of the best-known symbols of China, is off the endangered list thanks to aggressive conservation efforts.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said in a report that the panda is now classified as a “vulnerable” instead of “endangered” species, reflecting its growing numbers in the wild in southern China.
It said the wild panda population jumped to 1,864 in 2014 from 1,596 in 2004, the result of work by Chinese agencies to enforce poaching bans and expand forest reserves.
The IUCN report warned that although better forest protection has helped increase panda numbers, climate change is predicted to eliminate more than 35 per cent of its natural bamboo habitat in the next 80 years, potentially leading to another decline.
Nevertheless, animal groups hailed the recovery of the black-and-white bear that has long been a symbol of China and the global conservation movement.
The panda population reached an estimated low of less than 1,000 in the 1980s due to poaching and deforestation until Beijing threw its full weight behind preserving the animal, which has been sent to zoos around the world as a gesture of Chinese diplomatic goodwill.
The Chinese government and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) first established the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan province in 1980. Wild panda numbers have slowly rebounded as China cracked down on the skin trade and gradually expanded its protected forest areas to now cover 13,985 square km (5,400 square miles).
International groups and the Chinese government have worked to save wild pandas and breed them at enormous cost, attracting criticism that money could be better spent saving other animals facing extinction.
But the WWF, whose logo has been a panda since 1961, celebrated the panda’s re-classification, saying it proved that aggressive investment does pay off “when science, political will and engagement of local communities come together”.