The giant panda has become a symbol of both China itself and—more so internationally—the entire enterprise of protecting the planet’s rarest wildlife. Now one of the world’s major conservation institutions has stripped the iconic bears of their longtime “endangered” status. But rather than resting on their laurels for bringing the treasured animals back from the brink, Chinese officials and a number of scientists there are calling the status change premature, and want pandas back on the list.

“It’s a remarkable success story,” says David Garshelis, a conservation biologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and co-chair of the Bear Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Switzerland-based IUCN, which monitors the status of plants and animals and updates its Red List of Threatened Species every four to five years, took giant pandas off the list last month. The IUCN’s designations of threatened status for species are widely considered the most authoritative in the world, and many conservation policy and funding decisions—at both national and international levels—are based on its classifications. There are concerns that the status change could make China’s panda programs ineligible for certain international funds, and could lead to looser conservation rules.

For nearly two decades China has been introducing and enforcing tough logging and poaching bans, and has invested massive amounts of money in programs to encourage forest restoration. It has set up 67 reserves that are home to 1,246 pandas—about two thirds of the total wild population, according to China’s Fourth National Panda Survey released in February 2015. Declaring pandas VULNERABLE after 26 years of ENDANGERED status on the Red List “is a testimony that these conservation efforts worked, and they should keep doing them,” Garshelis says. “It’s a really positive message.”

Even as the Wolong Nature Reserve's roadside banners promote its status as a refuge for giant pandas and other protected species, the area is also bustling with development and seeing more roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Credit: JORDAN ASHLEY NOBLE, Michigan State University Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability

But the IUCN announcement has not been so unanimously welcome in China. The State Forestry Administration issued an official statement saying that downgrading pandas’ conservation status is “premature,” and vowed to continue protecting them as an endangered species. The new designation has also divided opinions in the scientific community. Some researchers say the giant panda population has been increasing steadily in recent years and that the downgrade is a natural outcome, but critics say the change could compromise conservation efforts and push pandas to the brink of extinction.

The IUCN’s decision was based on China’s Fourth National Panda Survey, in which thousands of government wildlife staff, scientists and volunteers combed 4.4 million hectares of forests in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces from 2011 to 2014. The survey found evidence of 1,864 pandas in the wild—an increase of 16.8 percent from the previous survey conducted in 1998–2002. But many researchers and conservationists question whether these two surveys should be compared. “The searching efforts in the fourth survey were much more intense, combing an area 76 percent bigger than that in the previous attempt,” says Fan Zhiyong, director of the species program at the conservation group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) China. (The WWF is known in the U.S. as the World Wildlife Fund.) “It’s not terribly surprising they found more pandas,” Fan says. “But this doesn’t mean that the total population is on the rise.”

Garshelis counters that the IUCN’s decision was not based just on this apparent increase in panda numbers but on other aspects of the survey. For instance, he says, the organization regards the giant panda as a species with an inferred decline in the future due to the possible impact of climate change. For such species, the largest subpopulation must have 250 or fewer mature individuals in order to qualify as ENDANGERED. Because China’s largest panda subpopulation has more than 400 animals, the species only meets the criteria for the VULNERABLE category, Garshelis says.

Some researchers including Liu Xuehua, an ecologist at Tsinghua University, say that giant pandas will continue to do well despite the status change. Others worry, however, that the animals’ situation is less rosy than it seems. For instance, the fourth panda survey found that the total area in which wild pandas live had increased by 11.8 percent to about 2.58 million hectares compared with the previous survey conducted 12 years earlier. However, “the habitats are increasingly fragmented by roads, railways, dams and mines,” says Ouyang Zhiyun, an ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research.

Giant pandas now live in 33 isolated subpopulations separated by insurmountable physical barriers—up from 15 such groups in the previous survey. “This is certainly no indication that the panda habitats have improved,” says WWF’s Fan. According to the fourth panda survey, only six of those subpopulations have over 100 individuals each; 22 subpopulations have fewer than 30 animals each and are at high risk of dying out. “Those with fewer than 10 individuals each, about 18 subpopulations, are likely to die out in the foreseeable future if no drastic measures are taken,” Ouyang says.

Ouyang is leading an effort to connect some of the isolated habitats by creating ecological corridors but fears the case for creating them may be weakened with local governments—who tend to prioritize economic development over environmental protection—now that the giant panda is listed as merely vulnerable. “It has always been an uphill struggle to persuade officials and developers to take conservation into account,” Ouyang says.

When assessing the environmental impact of a planned railway connecting Chengdu in Sichuan Province with Lanzhou in Gansu Province—a route that would traverse several panda reserves—researchers and conservationists fought hard to get developers to build as many bridges and tunnels as possible to minimize the impact. “We succeeded to a large extent, mainly because pandas enjoyed a special endangered status,” Ouyang says. “Now I’m not sure if we will have the same power of persuasion.” He adds: “If habitat fragmentation continues—which is a likely scenario because there seems no end to infrastructure development—this will devastate not only pandas but many other species that use the same habitats.”

“Climate change is likely to make things worse” for pandas, says Jianguo Liu, a conservation biologist at Michigan State University. In a study published in Nature Climate Change in 2012, Liu and his colleagues found that global warming is set to wipe out much of the bamboo forests by the end of the century in the Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi Province, an area which is home to about 345 wild pandas. Because bamboo comprises most of a panda’s diet, “the consequences would be unthinkable,” Liu says. “There is an urgent need to take climate change into consideration while planning conservation efforts.” Failing that, hard-earned progress in the past decades could be lost as the climate warms, he adds.

Last September Liu, Ouyang and a number of their colleagues began a separate four-year study to survey bamboo species and distribution across 13 provinces in China. They are also collecting information about land use changes, human activity and pandas’ whereabouts. Ultimately, the team hopes to be able to make projections that would help give them an indication of bamboo changes across China. “We need to know whether other panda habitats will suffer the same fate as Qinling,” Liu says. “And we may have to create reserves in regions that don’t have pandas now but might become suitable habitats in the future.”