Is Preserving the Panda Doing More Harm than Good?


Everyone loves pandas – how could you not? They’re adorable, they’re interesting, and the media has proportionally few stories of pandas being dangerous to humans – probably more a reflection of their lack of numbers rather than lack of aggression. But for the last few years, people have been raising the question… should we not just let them die? Maybe, they say, it would actually be in our best interest to simply let them become extinct. Everyone sympathizes, but some believe that we have to be realistic, which means leaving pandas for the history books.

The 2009 Debate

In an article published in The Guardian from two years ago, Chris Packham – a naturalist who appears on British TV – was in a public argument about this with Mark Wright – chief scientist at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Packham said this:

I don’t want the panda to die out. I want species to stay alive – that’s why I get up in the morning. I don’t even kill mosquitoes or flies. […] But let’s face it: conservation, both nationally and globally, has a limited amount of resources, and I think we’re going to have to make some hard, pragmatic choices.

The truth is, pandas are extraordinarily expensive to keep going. We spend millions and millions of pounds on pretty much this one species, and a few others, when we know that the best thing we could do would be to look after the world’s biodiversity hotspots with greater care. Without habitat, you’ve got nothing. So maybe if we took all the cash we spend on pandas and just bought rainforest with it, we might be doing a better job.

Of course, it’s easier to raise money for something fluffy. Charismatic megafauna like the panda do appeal to people’s emotional side, and attract a lot of public attention. They are emblematic of what I would call single-species conservation: ie a focus on one animal. This approach began in the 1970s with Save the Tiger, Save the Panda, Save the Whale, and so on, and it is now out of date. I think pandas have had a valuable role in raising the profile of conservation, but perhaps “had” is the right word.

Panda conservationists may stand up and say, “It’s a flagship species. We’re also conserving Chinese forest, where there is a whole plethora of other things.” And when that works, I’m not against it. But we have to accept that some species are stronger than others. The panda is a species of bear that has gone herbivorous and eats a type of food that isn’t all that nutritious, and that dies out sporadically. It is susceptible to various diseases, and, up until recently, it has been almost impossible to breed in captivity. […]

The last large mammal extinction was another animal in China – the Yangtze river dolphin, which looked like a worn-out piece of pink soap with piggy eyes and was never going to make it on to anyone’s T-shirt. If that had appeared beautiful to us, then I doubt very much that it would be extinct. But it vanished, because it was pig-ugly and swam around in a river where no one saw it. And now, sadly, it has gone for ever.

I’m not trying to play God; I’m playing God’s accountant. I’m saying we won’t be able to save it all, so let’s do the best we can. And at the moment I don’t think our strategies are best placed to do that. We should be focusing our conservation endeavours on biodiversity hotspots, spreading our net more widely and looking at good-quality habitat maintenance to preserve as much of the life as we possibly can, using hard science to make educated decisions as to which species are essential to a community’s maintenance. It may well be that we can lose the cherries from the cake. But you don’t want to lose the substance. Save the Rainforest, or Save the Kalahari: that would be better.

Mark Wright’s counterargument follows:

…To be fair, I can understand where Chris is coming from. Everywhere you look on this planet there are issues to be addressed and we have finite resources. So we do make really horrible choices. But nowadays, almost exclusively, when people work in conservation they focus on saving habitats.

Chris has talked about pandas being an evolutionary cul-de-sac, and it’s certainly unusual for a carnivore to take up herbivory. But there are many, many other species that live in a narrowly defined habitat. When he says that if you leave them be, they will die out, that’s simply not true. If we don’t destroy their habitat they will just chunter along in the same way that they have for the thousands of years.

I personally don’t understand the situation as well as Wright, but I can’t see how this is even remotely true. If it was true, then why are we even having this conversation? Let them live without our help then, right? Wright continues:

The giant panda’s numbers are increasing in the wild, so I don’t see them dying out, and I haven’t heard anything to suggest that other biodiversity isn’t thriving equally.

It is true, though, that there some some cases where preserving an animal is not the best use of resources. If you asked 100 conservationists – even at WWF – you would probably get 90 different answers, but look at what happened with the northern white rhino in Africa, which we’re pretty sure has died out. We lament its loss. […]

Otherwise, charismatic megafauna can be extremely useful […and] yes you could argue that conservationists capitalise on the panda’s appeal. […] Smaller creatures often don’t need a big habitat to live in, so in conservation terms it’s better to go for something further up the food chain, because then by definition you are protecting a much larger area, which in turn encompasses the smaller animals.

And of course they are an extraordinarily good vehicle for the messages we want to put out on habitat conservation. Look at Borneo, where you instantly think of the orangutans. In the southern oceans, you think of the blue whale. Then there are polar bears in the north. There are things you pull out from the picture because people can relate to them. And it does make a difference.

The comments from that article were also interesting. For example, the second commenter said this: “Pure rubbish, Chris. Humankind elevated itself above the other species via its superior intellect, and it is its duty to use that intellect to help others instead of selfishly caring for its own personal welfare only. It’s, you know…what separates us from the animals…” This was soon followed by a commenter who said “I think a lot of people are missing Chris’ point here in that the resources saved on keeping the panda in a cage could help save and secure the long term futures of hundreds if not thousands of other species.”

And that’s the essence of the problem. How much are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of the panda? And are we really willing to let it only live on only in our memories?

In 50 years, kids will have no idea what this graphic is supposed to be

The Current Debate

Just yesterday was an article published by the BBC, where a similar debate took place between Paul Goldstein – a wildlife guide – and Diane Walkington – the WWF’s “head of species.”

I can’t say which species we need to lose to save another. But if the only hope of survival for an animal – like the panda – is to be maintained in a holding facility or be born in a zoo, then I can understand the point of giving up on saving that species. […] If people want to save every species then my question to them is – how? […]

Many people would not back saving baby seals if they didn’t look the way they did. People would not be as up in arms about that butchery if they looked ugly. […] Tigers can be saved, but we have to get to the crux of the problem of why they are endangered. That goes for rhinos as well. The poaching of rhinos is the highest we’ve seen for many years.

[…] Solving problems on a local level is a start but if the demand for body parts is still there, it is only postponing the problem.

Emotional provocations are not enough. You have to have pragmatism. That may not be sexy, but it’s the only effective answer.

Is it fair for certain species that are not saveable in the long term to get the most money? I would say no.

A few days ago, a survey found that most of the 600 scientists surveyed agreed (or strongly agreed) that it’s time for conservation triage to be implemented. That is, allocating resources to animals who have the best chance of utilizing them. In other words, pandas would be left by the wayside because our vast amount of wealth being spent on them is proportionally much more useful to other species. Walkington mentions this in her counterargument:

In the last 40 years, 1,700 species have declined by nearly a third. But that doesn’t mean we should give up. As our founder Peter Scott once said: “We shall not save everything, but we shall save a great deal more than if we never tried.” It’s an uphill struggle to protect the world’s most endangered species and fragile habitats.

Earlier this month we confirmed that the Javan rhino has gone extinct in Vietnam. There is now only one population of around 50 animals left of this species. If anything, this blow should make us redouble our efforts to save the last stronghold of a prehistoric species, which faces extinction purely due to the actions of mankind.

We have worked for half a century to save the tiger and it’s true that numbers are dangerously low, however we firmly believe that the tiger has a future. Since the world tiger summit in Russia last year, we’ve already seen tiger numbers increase in India. Tiger populations declined by half in 20 years, due to hunting and deforestation

More importantly, the issue of triage isn’t as clear cut as it may first appear. Who will be charged with deciding which species should be saved above another? And what criteria will be used as the basis for that decision?

Ultimately you may end up with a model not dissimilar to that being used today, because conserving tigers and pandas equates to a push to preserve their habitats, and by extension all of the other species that share their home.

Over the years we’ve seen firsthand how wildlife, the environment and human activity are interlinked and it is clear that any effort to safeguard the natural world must be a package deal.

So Here We Are

I very much enjoy listening to the arguments of two sides on an issue that I have very little opinion of in either direction, because it gives me a good chance to gauge which argument is better; and I find the conservationists’ arguments weak. I, in fact, was initially thinking – just like everyone else does the first time they hear it – that pandas shouldn’t go, because it’s really such a shame to lose such an iconic animal. But they are essentially an indirect liability to other animals. And apparently they are even a liability to each other.

• Female pandas can expect a solid 16 years of fertility, but they only ovulate once a year, and can only handle one set of offspring every two years. There’s no clearer recipe for extinction. Even their ovaries are lazy!

• It’s cool, though, because they won’t have sex. That’s the most popular charge leveled against pandas, and for good reason! They have no libido, no interest in repopulating the species. They’d rather sit and chew, chew and sit, even when there’s panda porn shoved in their faces (which is a real thing that actually happened).

• Not only do pandas not procreate, they have fake pregnancies, presumably to get zookeepers off their backs about having all that free casual sex.

• When they do bother having sex, it’s generally with family members. That’s right: the one kind of sex pandas can’t get enough of is incest.

• And when they manage to have babies? It’s usually twins. One of whom is raised to be a good panda adult, the other of whom is left to die. Seriously. They almost always actively let one of their children die.

• Pandas are technically carnivores, but they chose to subsist almost entirely (we’re talking 99% of intake) on bamboo, which is terribly difficult for them to digest. But they still spend 16 hours a day eating it. That’s like if you decided to chew on styrofoam for 90% of your waking hours.

Australian Comedian Jim Jefferies gives his own run-down of the situation with the pandas during an explanation of why the story of Noah’s Ark must have been fictional:

Let me reiterate – no one wants to see pandas die out! But it looks like this is where we are headed. It wouldn’t be the first time we lost a species and it won’t be the last. We’ll probably have to say goodbye to our panda-shit-tea (oh you think I’m joking do you?) and try to learn from this conservation experience.

One thing that I hope true conservationists learn is that their pleas to the panda can go the other way as well. Think of all the animals who have no voice. They are not being saved, but only forgotten. So what makes pandas so special? Despite the answer being given several times above, it really doesn’t matter. What matters should be that we use our resources to do the best we can with them.

“Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” -Mr. Spock

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One Response to Is Preserving the Panda Doing More Harm than Good?

  1. jenny says:

    not to appeal to authority, but I find it interesting that those on the side of conservation of pandas actually know what the f- they are talking about while those advocating them to die out are mere media ppl (having an undergrad in zoology does not a scientist make).

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