As much as 15 percent of the Chinese habitat of the giant panda could be sold off under pending forest reforms in the country, reports New Scientist.
The forest, where some of the 1,600 wild pandas left live, is collectively owned by local villagers. That land could be sold off for logging, industry or tourism, says a research team looking into the effects of the legislation.
The legislation also allows for "eco-compensation," essentially letting public or private groups buy back land to, for instance, maintain habitat links between disparate groups of pandas.
"The worst outcome is about 15 per cent of panda forest habitat completely gone," said Li Zhang of the Beijing Normal University, who heads the team. "Moreover, the remaining habitat will become more fragmented and some smaller panda populations will be totally isolated from others, blocking gene flow between them."
Zhang and his team fear that the already-endangered panda population could shrink by as much as 15 percent, if their forest homeland is sold. The team's study says that about $1.2 billion in eco-compensation could be enough to prevent that decline.
China retains ownership of every giant panda in the world, including those loaned out to zoos internationally, as well as any offspring produced at those zoos.
The country charges an annual fee of about $1 million per pair, reports CNN, quite the lucrative business, given that there are about 350 on loan currently. The funds go to panda conservation efforts in China. After 10 years, the pandas are generally returned to China.