“I’d eat the last panda if I could have the money we’ve spent on panda conservation back on the table for me to do more sensible things with.” These are the words that brought conservationist Chris Packham to our attention two years ago, when Edinburgh was abuzz with the imminent arrival of the black and white bears the RZSS is paying £636,000 for. And now, with the Zoo regretting the media buzz they created around the possible panda pregnancy in early September and resigning their hopes of panda cubs this year, despite their artificial insemination attempt, many zoologists are also of Packham’s opinion. Nina Seale interviews Packham about his views on pandas, the badger cull and his aspirations for conservation.
Do you think the money pandas have brought in would have gone to conservation anyway?
The panda is undeniably an important conservation flagship species and has been since it was chosen for the symbol of the WWF and I’ve no doubt that it has raised the profile of conservation issues, not just in terms of the panda, that’s an undeniable fact.
The panda is a useful whipping board for me because I am keen to promote debate in our spending policies and wider issues in conservation. I just want people to stop and think “Are we pursuing the best policy?” and that’s a method of progress that we should all be doing all the time. The only reason the panda won’t become extinct is because the Chinese have set up these absurd breeding factories were they produce cuddly pandas, hand rear them all- I saw a film the other day, they had thirteen panda cubs all lined up in nappies on a floor. What good is that? That’s not conservation, that’s a glorified circus.
When it comes to the pandas in Edinburgh, what I think about the pandas in Edinburgh- brilliant. For the very simple reason that Edinburgh Zoo was in financial trouble, they got the pandas in, I have no doubt that they solved the problem. I really hope that they manage to impregnate that panda, and I hope that millions more people will come to say “Ooh, aah, look at that black and white bear” as a curiosity, but then go around the corner, spend more money in the zoo’s gift shop and canteen, and make sure that the Zoo can do great things for wider wildlife, which they attempt to do.
Do you think we have completely lost the war against the badger cull now?
No, I don’t think we’ve lost the war at all. I think, on the other hand, that we’ve won it. They can carry on killing badgers if they like but they’ve lost all public support, all public respect.
They’ve been culling for the last six weeks but they’re going to extend it. Basically they’ve failed to kill the number of badgers, they’re not testing to see if any of the animals have got TB, its an expensive, ludicrous, vile fiasco and its caused a huge rift between farmers, conservationists and the public, which is damaging because we should all be working together. I’m a very keen supporter of British farmers and I think that had we all been keen supporters of British farmers we wouldn’t find ourselves in this position anyway. But the insidious forces within the NFU, Countryside Alliance and these other sorts of people, have proved powerful and that’s probably what’s driven the process. But no, they’ve made a laughing stock of themselves at the price of killing these badgers and no one will ever forgive them for that.
If you were to choose an animal to represent you, what do you think yours would be?
Hm. Okay. I don’t know, that’s very difficult. I like moving fast, I like trying to think quickly.
I’d be a bird, I’d love to fly. I’d be a predator, there’s no doubt about that. I’d be a goshawk, or a sparrowhawk. I’d be private, I’d be a secretive species that knew its space… and was effective. Sparrowhawks’ hunting technique spend some time waiting for prey, but once they’ve seen it they don’t sit around at all, they move at lightning speed and with a beautiful ferocity.
So that’s how you see yourself?
Well, I don’t necessarily see myself that way! But aspirationally perhaps, yeah.
What do you think is the saddest story in nature conservation?
China. 80% of the world’s wildlife crime goes through China. They motivate most of the premiership issue in terms of rhino horn, tiger, ivory, okay well the Japanese are leading towards the end of Bluefin tuna, but when it comes to global forestry and all those kinds of things China are the principle perpetrator. And I think that we face an enormous challenge trying to deal with that. In fact the only way we will meet that challenge is politically. So unless politicians stand up to them and say “Yeah, we’ll buy your cheap rubbish clothes if you like, but on the condition that you stop this, China. This tiger business, you stop importing ivory” then we won’t stop it.
Do you think that’s a cultural issue?
Yes, I think it is a cultural issue. I don’t blame the Chinese, don’t get me wrong, there is not a racist cell in my body, and of course not all Chinese people have that outlook so it is a very unfortunate situation that I have to generalise when I’m talking about China because it isn’t about every individual and it isn’t about every policy but everyone knows that the force that they are exacting on the world is profound and because of their cultural difference, whereby they don’t have the same values that we do, and they haven’t got to the point where they realise that holding those values won’t actually help themselves, we are in a desperate situation. And that’s why I think that we will lose those megafaunal animals, because we won’t stop the Chinese.
If you were yet to make your biggest achievement, what would it be?
People confuse determination with ambition. I am extremely determined, but I’m not particularly ambitious.
In the way of conservation?
I suppose the thing is, all I really need to do at base level is replicate myself in the population, so I need to leave at least one person by the time I finish, who is as passionate and determined to make a difference as I am. So if I have an ambition, then it would be to do that for more than one. If, during the course of my time, I can inspire other people to take up the mantle and fight the cause as vigorously, or more vigorously, than I’ve been able to do, then that’s it really. I just hope that at some point I can do something, or say something, that someone out there will think “Wow” and then expand their interest, and at some point they will be doing an interview, as I just have, with someone else, and they’ll be fighting just as hard. That’s what I need to do.
Originally published in the Student, October 2013.