Giant pandas, it turns out, probably aren’t celebrating the Year of the Horse. Livestock, particularly horses, have been identified as a significant threat to panda survival. The reason? They’re beating the pandas to the bamboo buffet, a team of Michigan State University (MSU) researchers say.

“Across the world, people are struggling to survive in the same areas as endangered animals, and often trouble surfaces in areas we aren’t anticipating,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, MS, PhD, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at MSU. “Creating and maintaining successful conservation policy means constantly looking for breakdowns in the system. In this case, something as innocuous as a horse can be a big problem.”

China invests billions to protect giant panda habitat and preserve the 1,600 remaining endangered wildlife icons living there. For years, timber harvesting has been the panda’s biggest threat. Pandas have specific habitat needs: they eat only bamboo and stay in areas with gentle slopes that are far from humans. Conservation programs that limit timber harvesting have chalked up wins in preserving such habitat.

However, Vanessa Hull, MS, PhD, a doctoral student in MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, started noticing it wasn’t just pandas chowing on bamboo.

She learned that some farmers in the Wolong Nature Reserve (which is home to more than 150 giant pandas) who traditionally hadn’t kept horses had started raising them. A horse, Hull said, is kind of a bank account: When funds were needed, owners would track the animals down and sell them.