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Pandas – precious cutie or evolutionary dead-end?

I want to discuss with you today the plight of the panda.

Aren’t they adorable? It’s no wonder Giant Pandas are one of the most loved species in the whole animal kingdom. Because they’re so popular they’re often used as  what’s called a ‘flagship species’ – an endangered species that is well known and well loved – often an attractive mammal such as a tiger or elephant. Its iconic beauty is supposed to capture people’s interest in a conservation issue, where something like a woodlouse, although just as important in ecological terms, might not ignite the same public interest. WWF even has a panda as its logo for this reason, and for most people pandas spring quickly to mind whenever the term ‘endangered species’ is mentioned.

Recent studies estimate the number of Giant Pandas in the wild to be just 1600, with a further 200 living in captivity*. They’re on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Animals, and they were first proclaimed to be endangered in the 1980s. The main threat to them is habitat destruction. Their wild habitat is now just a few mountainous parts of southwestern China – mostly in the Sichuan Province. As parts of their habitat are cleared away for farmland, it’s becoming fragmented and pandas find it hard to roam around and find mates. It is notoriously hard to get them to breed in captivity and they are also prone to digestive illnesses. I was always under the impression that pandas only eat one type of bamboo, but Wikipedia reckons they like 25 different varieties of the stuff!  The problem is, in their now limited and fragmented habitat, only a few of these are common.

A lot is being done in terms of conservation of the Giant Panda. In China there are now many large sanctuaries where they are protected. Breeding is encouraged, but if they’ve been captured from the wild they tend to lose interest in this… In these cases artificial insemination is often used. In the wild there is a problem with the isolated groups of pandas becoming inbred as the destruction of their habitat leaves them in little ‘pockets’ of bamboo forest and they can’t migrate very far to find mates. In captivity, conservationists are attempting to combat this issue by freezing panda sperm and transporting it to zoos and reserves on an international scale to expand the gene pool. This sounds pretty weird, but apparently they could reach what’s termed an ‘evolutionary dead end’ if they become too inbred, so it is important for their survival. What’s even more important however is the protection of their habitat…

A huge amount of money is spent of panda conservation efforts, and there is actually a school of thought that it isn’t worth it. Some people think that pandas are too fussy and aren’t interested enough in having babies, and thus they are bound to die out. They also have some quirks of biology, such as having a carnivorous digestive system and yet living almost exclusively off nutrient-poor bamboo shoots. The conservationist Chris Packham says all the money spent on trying to keep pandas alive would be better spent elsewhere, such as on rainforest conservation. He points out there’s not even enough habitat left to sustain them, and says that although he doesn’t want them to die out, we should prioritize and accept it.

Although I can see there are more important matters, I think we can all agree it’d be tragic to lose such a beautiful and charismatic creature. And it’s not exactly like pandas are dying out simply because of some evolutionary weakness – they’re threatened because humans are destroying their habitat. As their endangered status is our fault, surely it’s our responsibility to try and conserve them? And of course there’s also the point that all species are integral to the ecology of their environment… If pandas were no more then this would have knock-on effects on all the wildlife that share their habitat. Everything is connected and interdependent.

Happily, according to this news article, the conservation efforts in China are taking effect and the numbers of Giant Pandas are actually now on the rise. Although of course they’re still low, I’m glad to see some progress is being made!

*This statistic is from the first resource below. It’s clearly hard to estimate numbers of wild animals with any certainty and I have seen different figures on other web pages, ranging from 1000-3000.

Resources:

http://pandasinternational.org/faqs.html

http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/wild-life-expert-pandas-die/story?id=8668627#.T3cOnWGmgl8

http://articles.latimes.com/1989-01-16/local/me-324_1_giant-panda

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_panda

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-01/20/content_410497.htm

All photos from Google Images.

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6 thoughts on “Pandas – precious cutie or evolutionary dead-end?

  1. I completely agree that because we are the ones that have caused their decline, we shouldn’t just let them die out….It is a good point he makes though, about the money being better spent elsewhere. Sort of a topic I can’t seem to make my mind up about!

  2. From a limited financial perspective, pandas probably aren’t worth saving. But from a PR one, they are totally the star attraction — charismatic large animals that get the public’s attention and support for conservation. Although there might be animals that are closer to being keystone animals, many of them are frankly unsexy — worms, small, un-cute rodents, sea stars…I think the conservation movement needs animals like the panda (and orangutans, elephants, amur leopards) to be the headliners that make other, behind-the-scenes type conservation possible. And I agree, a world without pandas is sad to think about.

  3. Thanks for your comments Jennifer and staceym! I agree with both of you. And it’s true – cute and attractive animals like pandas are important as flagship species in conservation. Although of course we should be just as interested in worms and stuff, it’s just human nature to favour the cute ones and it’s way more effective to work with that fact than to fight it!

  4. Interesting and controversial topic! I recently blogged about an article in a French newspaper called “Tiger or earthworm”, and I think the issue is getting always more discussed. I share your view, it’s absolutely necessary to keep the flagship species because no matter how many museums try to make exhibitions on insects, it will never be as attractive as a panda or a dolphin! But I think there should be ways to reallocate part of the money to smaller projects, or maybe work towards a more “global” conservation (i.e protect the species and its habitat). It’s the same for smaller, more “useful” species though : we spray pesticides to kill weeds (which, unfortunately, are also honey plants), and bees disappear…

    • Hey Sophie sorry about the late reply. I agree with you. I think perhaps it would result in a more holistic method of conservation if we focused on the conservation of specific habitats rather than species? This way a whole ecosystem and countless species of both animal and plant life would benefit. So instead of ‘pandas’ it’d be ‘Chinese mountainous bamboo forests”. But to be fair this just doesn’t have the same ring to it in terms of publicity…. Flagship species are undoubtedly important it seems. (:

      • Sorry I’m late to this discussion, but in my neck of the woods, conservation groups have been able to relate an ecosystem, the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, Canada, with the Spirit Bear, an animal that really resonates with the public.

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