By Helen Briggs
BBC News science reporter
Fears that the giant panda is on the brink of extinction may be unjustified, research suggests.
Past estimates of numbers in the wild have been put at about 1,000
Scientists believe populations have been underestimated in past surveys and there may be as many as 3,000 pandas left in the wild.
Numbers in reserves could be restored if conservation efforts continue, they write in Current Biology.
The panda once inhabited much of China but is now found only in the forested mountain areas of the country.
Its survival has become a cause celebre of the conservation movement, attracting worldwide attention.
The giant panda has long suffered at the hands of poachers and loggers, and was hit by the large-scale die-off of bamboo in the 1980s.
Numbers in the wild have been put at about 1,000 but the animal's elusive and wary nature has made it difficult to conduct accurate censuses.
Previous surveys have used conventional techniques which estimate how many pandas there are based on the amount of droppings found in a given area.
However, researchers in China and the UK tried out a new hi-tech method based on analysing DNA recovered from panda droppings.
This enables individuals to be identified and tracked across a wide area, giving information on their age and sex.
Half of the panda's mountainous bamboo habitat was lost between 1974 and 1988
Agriculture, logging and China's huge population rise have all played a role in the panda's downfall
There are now 40 panda reserves in China compared to 13 two decades ago
The study also provides evidence that pandas in the most important habitat of its kind have not suffered genetically over this period - there is no evidence of the sort of inbreeding or low genetic diversity that might threaten the species' long-term survival.
"DNA profiling in pandas can give us much more precision in identifying individuals and hence population numbers," said study co-author Prof Michael Bruford of Cardiff University, UK.
The results suggest that about 66 pandas live in the Wanglang Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, more than twice as many as were estimated in a survey conducted in 1998.
"If that were to be repeated across the range there could be as many as 2-3,000 pandas in the wild but a very important point is that this work needs to be replicated in other reserves," he added.
Conservationist groups stress that moves by to protect the panda through bans on poaching and deforestation must be maintained.
"Whilst this is potentially exciting and promising news, it also reinforces the fact that giant panda numbers are still dangerously low," said Mark Wright, Conservation Science Advisor at WWF-UK.
"It looks like we are moving in the right direction but we must continue with our efforts to conserve this species and the threats to its habitat if it is going to survive in the long-term."