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The Future of the Panda

The Future of the Panda


At the end of September the British TV naturalist, Chris Packham, stirred up a storm by suggesting that the giant panda should be allowed to die out.

The recent arguments fired up by the BBC’s Chris Packham regarding the fate of the giant panda have been tossed back and forth like a shuttlecock in a game that can be seen played across south and east Asia every morning at sunrise. The parks fill with polite elderly friends, each of whom no longer sees the point of the game and sometimes they fail to see the shuttlecock at all. They will die soon and sixty years of hitting a feathered object over a net together will have become an irrelevance; a microscopic fact in world eager to push on without them and the financial burden they represent. The giant panda, unlike these old people, is an irrelevance, but like the senior citizens it does represent a huge cost burden, deflecting both our resource and our thinking from other, more worthy acts of conservation.

Fundamentally the giant panda argument is simple; environmentally it would not much matter if it were to become extinct, but in terms of the Chinese and the World Wildlife Fund’s marketing it would be a disaster. In the short and medium term marketing will win; the panda will be forced to avoid extinction, however suicidal the species appears to be. And suicidal or, more accurately, auto-genocidal it certainly is, as the US based Defenders of Wildlife put it, “The Giant Panda have the digestive system of a carnivore and therefore does not have the ability to digest cellulose (plant matter) efficiently, and thus derives little energy and little protein from consumption of bamboo.” What a lifestyle choice; for the giant panda can find nutrition from other sources; it simply chooses not to do so!

The point is finely balanced, resources going into the panda lifeline, which include the need for vast bamboo forests, would be better spent on protecting other ecosystems and thus a number of species rather than one, but on the other hand the panda image is the global face of conservation and, more to the point, it is an endearing creature.

After returning, last week, from the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu, with at least 150 photographs of this delightful animal, it has been easy to win the attention of others, who will “oooohh and aaaahh” at the merest glimpse of the black and white fur, cute rounded ears and the disturbingly sad demeanour of the rotund and cuddly beasts. As Packham himself said, “...in a blind strike of evolutionary luck, it is plump, cute and cuddly.”

It is unsurprising that Liu, the twenty-two year old Chinese college student, who entered a panda’s pen in Guilin last November, wanted a cuddle; it is surprising that this action is not repeated more often by tens of thousands of adoring Chinese fans. Pandas are cute, but to look at, not to cuddle, as Liu found out to his cost, suffering a number of bites to his arms and legs as Yangyang, an eight year old male, fended off his advances.

Robert Zoellick, the former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, was given a five month old cub to cuddle on his visit two years earlier; thus he suffered no damage to life and limb. The resultant images of the event were used by the Chinese as an indication that U.S. relations with China were improving; such is the political importance of the beast’s imagery!

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