Should pandas be left to face extinction?

Yes, says Chris Packham

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. So if pandas can survive, that would be great. 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 This approach began in the 1970s with Save the Tiger, Save the Panda, Save the Whale, and so on, and it is now out of date.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. They’ve also got a very restricted range, which is ever decreasing, due to encroachment on their habitat by the Chinese population. Perhaps the panda was already destined to run out of time.

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. 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.

Chris Packham is a naturalist and presenter of Autumnwatch

No, says Mark Wright

You are reading this because it is about giant pandas. We could have this argument about the frogs of the rainforest, and the issues would be identical, but the ability to get people’s attention would be far lower. So in that sense, yes you could argue that conservationists capitalise on the panda’s appeal.

And, 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.

And besides, in terms of its biodiversity and the threats it faces, I think that the part of China where pandas live should be on the preservation list anyway. The giant panda shares its habitat with the red panda, golden monkeys, and various birds that are found nowhere else in the world.

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. But at the same time it had got to the stage where the likelihood of success was at a critically low level. If you were doing a battlefield triage system – the rhino would probably have had to be a casualty.

Otherwise, charismatic megafauna can be extremely useful. 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 orang-utans. 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.

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