In 2011, Dr Murray Rudd of the University of York conducted an email survey of scientists regarding the idea of “conservation triage”; an idea which had most participants agreeing that it’s time to focus resources on animals that can realistically be saved, and giving up on the rest. This has ignited an ongoing debate about which endangered animals realistically can be saved, and thus merit further resources.
Saving the Panda
Are We Giving Up?
Guest post written by Farial Zaman, a recent graduate of the Masters of Development Studies at the University of Melbourne, currently working in Education Management in Laos.
It is widely known that Pandas are an endangered species, but the following figures truly illustrate the dismal state of the Panda population: only about 1800 currently exist in the wild, and of those 1800, an estimated 162 of them are outside of China (around 55 are in zoos throughout the world).
An international symbol of peace and friendship, the panda has an important place in Chinese culture, history and politics. However, in recent times, there has been a backlash toward efforts in saving the panda. In an almost sickening twist, there is an argument to discontinue conservation efforts due to the costs involved and the numbers in their re-population via breeding programs not meeting key performance indicators (KPIs).
Chris Packham, a well-known naturalist, is one voice who has stated that panda conservation efforts should be quelled:
“The Panda is a species of bear that has gone herbivorous and eats a type of food that isn’t all that nutritious…it is susceptible to various diseases…and up until recently, it has been almost impossible to breed in captivity…They’ve also got a very restricted range, which is decreasing, due to encroachment of their habitat by the Chinese population. Perhaps the Panda was already destined to run out of time”.
The most disturbing aspect of the statement above is the insinuation that the endangered status of the panda is a natural occurrence, and so their extinction should not be stopped by human intervention. However, it must be noted that pandas did not become endangered as a result of natural events. We humans bear the responsibility for the extreme decline in their population due to our incessant need to poach them and encroach on their habitat.
Furthermore, the panda is a case study which sheds significant light on the wider mass extinction rate of species. According to a recent study on mass extinction loss published in Science Advances, it was found that “the current extinction rate has increased a hundred fold over the last century” with a large contributor being the loss of biodiversity. Thus, it can be argued that the panda was not ‘already destined’ to run out of time, but that humans have steadily pilfered precious grains of sand from the hourglass of this species.
The cost of conserving pandas is another factor used to argue against continued conservation efforts, as they are one of the most expensive animals to maintain. In fact, when the Chinese government loans or gifts pandas to foreign dignitaries or zoos, it is not for free. All pandas that leave China are on 10 year paid loans, with a loan rate of 1 million Euros per year.
Additionally, with a small breeding cycle of a 36 hour timeframe per year, pandas are notoriously difficult to breed. Pandas are known for being solitary animals, with male and females only associating with each other for a few days per year. Often, breeding attempts in zoos result in huge disappointment when the female does not show interest in the male. What is frequently overlooked is that in the wild, she would have more choice and not necessarily mate with the first suitor. There is also the fact that, due to their isolation from other Pandas whilst living in zoos, they simply do not know how to mate.
Matthew Hatchwell, Chief Executive of the Wildlife Conservation Society Europe, suggested an interesting yet unsettling argument as to why there is mounting backlash against panda conservation. He stated that it could be due to the fact that pandas have no direct useful link to humans, such as cows, and the fact that Pandas have not been domesticated like cats and dogs. Such ideas make it clear that we are abusing our role as the dominant species on the planet, and demonstrate the arrogant tendency of a vast portion of human society to view other species as subservient.
If nothing else, perhaps the most important reason to save the panda is our moral obligation to do so. As Conservation Biologist Michael Soule stated, “…the untimely extinction of populations and species is bad… of the hundreds of vertebrate extinctions that have occurred during the last few centuries, few, if any, have been natural”.
The time for humankind to examine its relationship with the natural world is upon us, and the only morally justifiable action we can take is to do so immediately and make a positive change.
Conservation efforts have changed since its infancy. Efforts now also go into habitat conservation, which in turn helps the preservation of the biodiversity there. Conservation efforts are being made, albeit on a small scale. In partnership with the WWF and the Chinese government, there has been an increase in the creation of panda reserves and bamboo corridors, educating local communities on how to protect panda habitat and maintain a sustainable livelihood via training in eco-friendly logging methods, education about conservation and potential income generating activities such as ecotourism. There has also been tremendous efforts made by many indigenous people in areas with high panda populations (relatively speaking).
As a result of these efforts, the population of endangered wild giant pandas has risen some 17 percent in just over a decade (according to a Chinese government report in 2015), so the pandas fate may not be sealed just yet.
Hopefully, these encouraging numbers will continue to grow and the panda, a cultural icon for China and symbol of wildlife conservation for much of the world, will be able to flourish in its natural habitat once more. This will only be possible if we collectively reject the idea of ‘conservation triage’, as the widespread adoption of such a policy would represent yet another low in the history of humankind and its relationship with the animal kingdom. As the founder of the WWF, Peter Scott, said: “we shall not save everything, but we shall save a great deal more than if we never tried”.
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