People love pandas. They’re cute, cuddly and desperately endangered. We want to save them. Our kids beg us to save them. Nevertheless, one journalist recently asked the provocative question: Should we just give up on the panda and let it die out?
Timothy Lavin, news writer for Bloomberg, caused a bit of controversy recently when he published an article called “Why I Hate Pandas and You Should Too.” Written in response to the joyous proclamations that a new baby panda had been born at Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo, Lavin says we’re wasting money, time and effort trying to save pandas.
It’s an interesting perspective. Should we go “all out” to save a species — especially an adorable one — or spend that money where it might do more good overall for other species? Lavin believes pandas should be left to go extinct because they are “evolutionary failures.” Put a fork in them, they’re done. They don’t reproduce reliably, they don’t survive mostly on meat like other bears and they’re expensive to maintain.
Lavin thinks panda lovers need an intervention right about now. He says conservation “requires making tough choices. Pandas had a pretty good run for 3 million years. All that money is better spent on preserving diverse habitats rather than on a single hopeless species.”
Almost No Pandas Left Out There
The panda, known as the Giant Panda to differentiate it from its cousin the Red Panda, lives in only a few mountainous areas in China’s Yangtze Basin region. Development, farming and deforestation have stripped it of nearly all its natural habitat.
The Giant Panda is listed as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. There may be as few as 1,600 left in the wild. Only about 61 percent of the world’s remaining wild pandas – about 980 — live in a protected status on 50 Chinese reserves.
Pandas are carnivores, but oddly about 99 percent of their diet consists of bamboo — lots and lots of bamboo. Bamboo is not nutritionally dense, so pandas must eat 26 to 84 pounds of it every day.
Panda Haters Be Hatin‘
As Lavin points out in his article, he’s not the first to suggest that we end heroic efforts to save the panda. Chris Packham, a British television wildlife expert, told The Telegraph in 2009: “Here’s a species that of its own accord has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac. It’s not a strong species.” Packham’s verdict: “I reckon we should pull the plug. Let them go with a degree of dignity.”
Others have said much the same, sometimes harshly:
- Brian Barrett and Sam Biddle, writing for Gizmodo: “Nature has made it clear in no uncertain terms that pandas need to die. Now.”
- David Plotz, writing for Slate: “Pandas are not ill-natured. They are worse: They are no-natured. Drearier animals you cannot imagine. They are highly anti-social, detesting interaction with other pandas and people… Good riddance to the semi-bear.”
- Lu Zhi, Beijing University panda expert, has said that trying to reintroduce pandas to the wild is as “pointless as taking off the pants in order to fart.”
- David Bellamy, wildlife expert, has said, “You can’t release them back into the wild if there is no wild left and we shouldn’t rear animals just to put them into cages.”
The point here, ultimately, is that humans have so ruined the panda’s habitat that there is almost literally no place where captive-reared pandas could successfully be returned to the wild. That leads some to ask: Why are we trying so hard to make more of them?
Lavin felt the wrath of the panda-loving public following publication of his anti-panda article. “Have you no soul?” a fellow customer in a market asked him, according to mynorthwest.com. Lavin probably does have a soul, but he’s giving voice to thoughts that perhaps others won’t yet acknowledge: Should there be a point at which enough is enough?
Why the Panda Deserves Our Help
Defenders of the panda say “No” — if we go down, we will go down fighting. They charge that naysayers like Lavin write stories like these “mostly because it is easier and garners more page views to be boldly wrong than boringly right.”
Pandas are not “evolutionary failures.” To the contrary, we failed them. Before we came along, for three millions years or so, pandas sustained themselves admirably by mating and reproducing exactly as they do now, eating exactly what they eat now. The panda’s unique proclivities became “a problem” for their survival only after people arrived.
We then eradicated their habitat, wiped out their food supply, poached them for their pretty hides, crammed them into preserves and watched their number dwindle to perilously low levels.
“The panda can’t start giving birth more often because it’s critically endangered; that’s not how this works,” noted Dan Nosowitz of PopSci.com. “If you were told that the human race now suddenly depends on being able to give birth every other month and subsisting on oak leaves, it’s not like you could just do that.” Well said, Dan. The panda’s not to blame for this mess. We are.
Yet the question lingers. It’s sort of a “Sophie’s Choice” scenario: If we can do more good for other species with the millions we’re spending on pandas, should we cut our losses, consign the panda to history and help the others instead?
It’s a sad state of affairs when humanity has so destroyed an ecosystem that it’s necessary to debate the wisdom of attempting to save a beloved animal. Oh pandas, we do adore you – but if you have no habitat in which to survive, how can we save you? Many of us still want to try.
Both images via Thinkstock