Beijing: The number of giant pandas living in the wild may have risen by a sixth over the past decade but experts have questioned the numbers unveiled in a latest survey by China's state forestry administration, suggesting it is unclear if the results can be compared to previous national counts.
The argument has also reignited the debate over whether panda should still be categorised as an "endangered" species, the scientific journal Nature reported.
According to China's deputy forestry minister Chen Fengxue, thousands of people combing 4.36 million hectares of forests in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces from 2011-2014 had found evidence of 1,864 pandas living in the wild. The last survey, conducted in 1998-2002, reported 1,596 pandas.
"The rise is a result of conservation policies, which encourage forest protection and restoration," Fengxue said during a press conference on Febraury 28.
The new study- China's fourth national panda survey since the 1970s- searched an area around 72 percent larger than the previous count, making it hard to compare the two figures.
"We really need to know how panda populations have changed in the same area that was sampled last time," said David Garshelis, conservation biologist and co-chair of the bear specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Garshelis also wants to know the survey's margin of error which- as in the 1998-2002 study- was not given. The survey shows that about two-thirds of pandas reside in the country's 67 nature reserves- including 27 new reserves in the past decade.
Overall, the area in which wild pandas live has increased by 11.8 percent to 2.58 million hectares. The survey has important implications for pandas' conservation status.
"If the IUCN does agree the panda population is increasing, there would be a five-year waiting period to assess the stability of the situation before the bear's conservation status was downgraded to "vulnerable", he noted.
The IUCN only categorises a species as "endangered" if its total mature population numbers less than 2,500 and that population is declining (or if the largest single population cluster numbers below 250).
There are also concerns about the methods used to estimate panda numbers. "There is an urgent need to stop further habitat fragmentation and to construct ecological corridors to connect isolated panda populations," concluded Fan Zhiyong, director of the conservation group WWF's China species programme.