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Should we save the panda?

Posted by on September 21, 2012

Should we save the panda?by Rebecca Nesbit, Press Officer at the Society of Biology

This week I added a poll to the Society of Biology website in honour of our upcoming debate during Biology Week: ‘should we save the panda?’. I admit I haven’t yet voted, because I don’t know what to say.

If I look at the question from a purely scientific point of view the answer is a clear no. We only have limited resources for conservation and we should perhaps focus them on species which either are essential to the ecosystem they inhabit (such as being a food source for other species) or benefit humans directly (such as pollinating our crops or stabilising sand dunes which are flood defences).

Basically – cute and cuddly doesn’t mean ecologically valuable.

But ecological value isn’t all that matters. What shouldn’t be underestimated is the impact of wildlife on human health, both physical and mental.

I recently reviewed The Value of Species by Edward McCord for The Biologist. I wasn’t completely convinced by his arguments because, like it or not, we do have to make choices, but he made a relevant point.

Some species will never provide economic benefit, but he believes nature is so fascinating that all species are worthy of protection. Curiosity is fundamental to our consciousness and sparks our appreciation of other species. If we lost this what would it mean for human existence?

I’d be really interested to hear everyone’s thoughts, in the comments below or by email, and you can send me questions to put to the panellists or come along in person.

The questions I’m asking myself are:

Is it a problem if the panda survives only in the zoo? Most of us will never see one in the wild, and if ‘because we love them’ is our reason for acting, then perhaps captivity is good enough.

Is beauty important when choosing what to save? Should conservationists be trying to increase the street cred of ‘uglier animals’. I know one who is… check out panellist Simon Watt’s Ugly Animal Appreciation Society.

If we are genuinely keen to prioritise species because we like them, should we protect some invasive species rather then try to eliminate them?

Connected to these, I have already blogged about whether conservation is about protecting humans or whether biodiversity is intrinsically valuable.

Thanks in advance for all your comments.

Biology Week, organised by the by the Society of Biology, logo

24 Responses to Should we save the panda?

  1. Rebecca Nesbit

    I can certainly recommend Yan’s blog:

  2. Yan Wong

    I’ve stuck up my thoughts on my blog. Basically, we probably all agree that we want to conserve interesting habitat. The question is whether focussing on pandas does that. This is an empirical, social science question, which is, in theory, answerable.

    Only thing is, I don’t have the tools to answer it myself.

  3. Paige L

    This is a very funny video pros and cons of conserving pandas

  4. lonewoplf

    The way of the panda is gone. So sad. The panda is calm and patient(sp). The way of humanity is gone. Calm and patient(sp). Farewell humanity. Farewell manKIND.

  5. Cheryl

    If this is what we are reduced to (pitting one species against another), then the bell tolls for us, as well. Prioritizing species is like rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic-a major waste of critical time. Yes, save habitat. Yes, educate, educate, educate! It’s time for political activism from our scientists. Our very lives depend on it.

  6. Sam

    The ideas and aims of panda conservation are generally noble; it is difficult to argue against that and any active conservation action that draws significant public attention to the plight of wildlife should be encoraged. However, I would say that the popularity of this cause above all others has run the risk of overshadowing other serious examples of habitat degradation within China, fresh water systems are often highly degraded as are many other forested areas and very little is reported in comparison to the “good news” Panda stories. Panda conservation may well have noble intentions for one important habitat and species but can be used as a cover for other abuses within a country which like most others has a generally poor environmental record.

  7. Janet

    Panda conservation in China is not entirely dependent upon Western donations. The onus on Panda conservation in China is on the regional governments with only certain things such as international diplomacy being authorised at the national level. The massive economic expansion in the regions and the growth of multi-national corporations has led to many of the latter sponsoring the panda reserves e.g. the auto industry. My group wanted to sponsor but we were outbid by a multi-national. If the Chinese economy holds there may well come a time where they are self-sufficient on panda conservation. Or, they could be self-sufficient if diplomatic relations with China changed. The Director of Wolong has recently expressed his frustration at the lack of knowledge in the West on panda conservation and there may come a time when they say it should all be done in China, in the reserves and in the wild. After all, Chinese zoologists will enter a panda cage and rescue a cub in need almost immediately whereas Western Zoologists don’t. And Chinese zoologists are re-introducing pandas to the wild in carefully measured stages.

  8. Susan

    Of course we should! The future generations would never forgive us if we didn’t do all that we can.

  9. Rebecca Nesbit

    Is it true that all the only change if we lost the panda is the rate at which bamboo is eaten? Ignoring the effect on ecosystems, the attitude of people towards conservation may become more negative, attitudes towards China may decline, donations to conservation charities may decline, the habitat which pandas are currently in may lose its protection…

  10. Janet

    a) Even if we did save their habitat there is no guarantee that it would save them because their limited population would still die through territorial fights, daily injuries and disasters such as the earthquakes and floods that occur in their habitat.
    b) Male pandas are definitely interested in mating but they are only allowed a limited time-frame to mate with a female. A 3/4 day per year window: compare that with the opportunity the human male has.The male panda at San Diego Zoo has successfully mated five times with the female and produced living cubs. I’ve watched him on pandcams every year and he is a Master of the Art. Is it because he lived for some time in the Wild before being rescued injured: we don’t know.
    c) Pierre Comizzoli, reproductive physiologist with the Smithsonian, has recently said that studying panda pregnancy further could be the key to understanding why many other animals do not get pregnant easily.
    d) Pandas don’t just eat bamboo. I have seen them think strategically, use their memories and use their emotions. They are living beings. To say they only eat bamboo is like saying humans only eat burgers. In fact, there is evidence of them eating meat.