Bye, bye, cute furry panda bears

Everyone loves pandas and their even more adorable (once they grow some fur) babies.

But TV naturalist Chris Packham makes a strong case for diverting the incredible resources currently spent to protect panda bears to instead protect vital biodiversity hotspots. He argues that pandas live in a cramped region (that is shrinking rapidly as China’s population and economy grow), eat a very limited diet that sporadically dies out, are lousy at reproduction, and are quite susceptible to diseases. So “Perhaps the panda was already destined to run out of time.”

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 This approach began in the 1970s with Save the Tiger, Save the Panda, Save the Whale, and so on, and it is now out of date.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.

Packham argues we should instead focus on “Save the Kalahari” or “Save the Rainforest”:

Extinction is very much a part of life on earth. And we are going to have to get used to it in the next few years because climate change is going to result in all sorts of disappearances. 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.

Packham misses another argument for diverting resources away from cute, fluffy species: Shock value. Perhaps allowing a species like the panda to drift toward extinction will raise awareness of the seriousness of habitat destruction, global warming, and our present cataclysmic rate of species extinction.

I’d like to put in a plug for one of my favorite animals, our close relative the orangutan. It’s in great trouble due to habitat destruction. Virtually all of its habitat will likely be destroyed well before my 3-year-old graduates from high school.

Posted by James on Friday, September 25, 2009