How the World Bank helped Giant Pandas recover


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Recently, the IUCN World Conservation Union announced that the Giant Panda is no longer globally endangered with extinction, but has been “down-listed” to globally vulnerable. The Fourth National Survey (2011-2014) in China estimated the range-wide population as 1,864 adult Giant Pandas, and that at least one distinct population, in the Minshan Mountains, includes more than 400 mature individuals. National surveys indicate that the past trend of decline has stopped, and the panda population has started to increase. Forest protection and reforestation in China has increased forest cover over the past decade, leading to an 11.8% increase in forest occupied by pandas and a 6.3% increase in suitable forests that are not occupied, yet.  

In a world where the loss of wild species has become so commonplace that it hardly makes headlines anymore, it is worth looking more deeply at what went right in this particular case. We believe that there is a direct connection with some major interventions that occurred more than 15 years ago, such as the China-World Bank-GEF Nature Reserve Management Project (NRMP), in which we were fortunate to have played a role as the World Bank task team leader of the Project and as one of the international wildlife and protected areas specialists on the government team. That project, in particular, contributed significantly to enhancing the habitats of the panda and other species that share its range. We remember when the national masterplan for Giant Panda conservation first came out in 1992; most in the conservation community in China thought it was a wild fantasy. It was only through the nuts and bolts of implementation, which the NRMP advanced between 1996 and 2001, that key parts of that master plan became a reality.

The impacts of the NRMP went far beyond the five panda nature reserves—Taibai, Changqing, Zhouzhi, Niubeijiang and Foping NR--that it touched directly.  The project introduced science-based monitoring, results-based management planning, and participatory approaches  with adjacent communities, and provided capacity building for staff from the national nature reserve management office in Beijing to  a dozen national-level nature reserves, several of which subsequently became models for the country. 

The project also introduced a viable model for transforming forest production enterprises into forest conservation agencies – an intervention which was very timely, as the approach became a vital part of subsequent efforts to turn around China’s forest enterprises in 1998. Catastrophic floods in 1997-1998 made it clear that clear-cutting natural forests created downstream costs that far exceeded any revenue streams obtained from logging.  Providing alternative livelihoods and payments for ecological services to people who previously depended on unsustainable use of wild resources has now become a key pillar in China’s efforts for forest conservation and biodiversity protection.

The NRMP and a follow-on project, the China-World Bank-GEF Sustainable Forest Development Project, with other interventions have succeeded in transforming the approach to biodiversity conservation in China. These impacts have proven to be long lasting and wide ranging.  One of us just got back from a drive around Baima Snow Mountain National Nature Reserve in Yunnan Province, which was among the nature reserves that were included in the PAM component.  The impact of those interventions is still evident there, in the professionalism of the staff and their collaborative approach to relationships with surrounding communities, and in the resulting recovery of forests and wildlife populations, including the rare and charismatic Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey.

 Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey in the Baima Snow Mountain National Nature Reserve.  ©WVBleisch/CERS

These two large scale interventions were not only implemented according to the stated objectives, but also stayed the course against all special interests that tried to water down the approaches. Success can be attributed to the long term partnership between the State Forestry Administration and the World Bank which promoted innovation and experimentation; the willingness of different levels of forestry administration to work with local communities and other key stakeholders; and events like the logging ban, which changed the goals and the mindset of the larger forestry community. All of this came together to enable the success of an equitable and sustainable approach that would ensure a lasting future for China’s rich heritage of varied natural habitats and unique wild species like the Giant Panda.

We hope that we can be a part of something so influential again someday.


Susan Shen

Manager, Operations

Bill Bleisch

Researcher, teacher, and writer, China Exploration & Research Society

Join the Conversation

D Rijal
September 29, 2016

Lessons on conservation:
Susan, I'd heard you talk about this experience before, but didn't know the details of what all it took to make it such a success. Thank you for sharing your experience in writing.

Pawan G. Patil
September 28, 2016

Your blog brought back a flood of memories. I was honored to carry your bags on China SFDP as your young economist 18 years ago! I’ve been paying forward what you taught me ever since. While the Bank did not allow you to be recognized as China's first recipient of the Giant Panda Award more than a decade and half ago, some institutional memory still exists. And yes, you truly helped save Pandas and their habitat. How many folks can actually say that!?

Juliette Wilson
September 29, 2016

Thanks for sharing. It's good to look back overtime and see the impact that this work has had on the panda community and sustainable forest development in China.

Scott McCormick
September 30, 2016

Susan, Sand Pawan. Good to hear about the success and impact of the NRMP on the health of the Panda. I still remember with great appreciation the chance to work with such great people at the Bank and in the SFD. I have many fond memories of working, living, and laughing with my colleagues in the many nature reserves in which we piloted the community-based conservation program. I was especially happy and proud to know that our approaches and methods were incorporated into guidelines and requirements that each reserve administration must have a community-based conservation and development program as part of their organizational structure. Great job Susan and it was great working with you over that period of time.

September 30, 2016

Loved this. The Bank at its best

Jerry Bisson
October 02, 2016

Kudos to Susan and her colleagues for achieving such important accomplishments in Chinese conservation. Economic and environmental progress often takes decades to bear fruit - this is an encouraging story that proves "yes, we can make a difference!"

Liwei CHEN
October 04, 2016

Along with the implementing of GEF-WB-NRMP project, the State Forestry Administration of China began to adopt and promote a serial of innovations and improvements nation widely on nature reserve management which were introduced by the project. The effectiveness and impacts of the project keep showing up since then. Now, many procedures and guildelines produced by the project are issued as national Codes.
Susan, I am quite proud of being working with you and WB team for those 6 years as an SFA official and project manager. I myself learned a lot from you and the project. Also, I have been glad to witness the outcomes of the project been applied in habitat conservation and wildlife protection.

Liwei CHEN
October 09, 2016

Susan, Thanks a lot for your blog which brings me back to 20 years ago,,,lot of wonderful memories. As one of the GEF-WB-NRMP project managers, I went through the whole journey from very begining to the completion. I dare to say, it was the project that changed and has been changing China's scheme on nature conservation, from the policy making procedure to physical landscape conserving. Also, so glad to see Bill and Scott here.Best wishes to you all, my old friends.