Biology / Wildlife

Why do zoologists hate pandas?

Giant panda

Photo credit: Nina Seale

“I would eat the last panda if I could have all the money we have spent on panda conservation put back on the table for me to do more sensible things with.” These are the controversial words of naturalist Chris Packham. You may wonder how someone who does not fall at the feet of the cutest of nature’s doomed creations could possibly have ended up a conservationist, but the truth is that Packham has a point.

None of us conservationists want to lose any more species, but the global problems facing conservation have surpassed the point where we can realistically hope to conserve all the remaining species on Earth- the money that conservationists have to spend must be directed at achievable goals, and sadly we have to accept that there are going to be some losses. If it had not been for the cuteness factor these poor bears would have gone extinct long ago.

In the eyes of evolution, giant pandas are a bit of a mess. Not only have they gone herbivorous, but their picky palettes have selected one of the most foolish food sources they could have selected in their Chinese habitat: bamboo. Not only is bamboo very difficult to digest, taking up a lot of energy to break down (the adorable round faces of pandas are due to the enormous cheek muscles required for them to chew bamboo) but very little nutrition is gained from each stem that is crunched down and digested. New studies have shown that bamboo plants are now under threat from climate change, and an unusual reproductive cycle means that bamboo is very slow to adapt and will struggle to manage to evolve a response to fluctuations in temperature.

Another problem for panda conservation is their ridiculous reluctance when it comes to mating. Female pandas are only receptive to mating once every year for a brief 72 hours, and within that there is a ‘fertility window’ of 24-48 hours where they can be impregnated. Not only this, but as these poor bears have very short penises, they must mate in a very specific position for the female panda to get pregnant… and many captive pandas seem to be ignorant of this position. So millions of dollars are pumped into programs to force these reluctant bears to have sex, while their habitats continue to shrink under the pressure of the huge Chinese population and reintroduction programs for captive pandas that have managed to mate have so far been unsuccessful.

It is not for lack of trying, but the money these bears bring in could be better spent on conserving other habitats that desperately need attention. Pouring money into the Chinese forests that hold the handful of remaining wild pandas benefits all the critters and creatures hiding within its depths, but perhaps taking Packham’s advice and letting them go with a degree of dignity will help us redirect conservation efforts for the long term. They are not a keystone species; their decline has shown no significant effect on the forest ecosystem. Their value lies in their appeal to the human eye.

Though it is an awful truth, losing the giant panda would really wake up the world’s population to the dangers that our fellow creatures are facing. They may be worth more dead than alive.

Originally published in the Student, November 2012.

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