Mike Ko Personal Portfolio


Home-School Education
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
United Kingdom

2017 - 2018
United Kingdom

    Pandas: The Cute but Unjustified Royalty of Conservation?

         Here is a sight that would probably melt the hearts of many: a few dozen baby pandas lazing on the grass, essentially fluffy balls of black and white. Such was the scene at a conservation research centre in China this past October. These new-borns are the fruits of breeding programmes and more generally humanity’s effort to save the vulnerable mammal.

         They may be cute and cuddly, but the attention that we give to these bamboo-eating bears from China is rather abnormal from a conservational perspective. Though many species of the world are in danger, the panda has received preferential treatment and generous allocation of resources for over half a century. Poaching was banned and reserves were set up to protect them and their habitats. Zoos in various countries rent pandas from China on ten-year loans for people to see the dopey, laid-back creatures. These loans do not come cheap, with the potential equivalent costs of millions of US dollars providing further funds for conservation. Society has thus devoted a significant amount of effort to protect a single species. In an era that some regard as the beginning of the Earth’s sixth wave of wildlife extinction, it may be tempting to wonder why we should treat pandas like metaphorical royalty.

         The panda’s position is not helped by the fact that it is still struggling despite all the help it is getting. It may no longer be an endangered species, but its habitat is still under threat. Measures exist to protect the bamboo forest habitats, but they are still highly fragmented and may face further destruction as climate change progresses. The breeding programmes meant to maintain the species’ numbers have also failed to make significant contributions to the wild population thus far. Of the few pandas that have been released, some have either died or been subsequently removed from the wild. So it is not a big surprise for some to question the value of saving the panda when judged against its costs. Naturalist and BBC presenter Chris Packham once commented that the species’ position was untenable and should be allowed to naturally go extinct. He and others mused that breeding programmes were useless given the great reduction in the panda’s natural habitat anyway. Maybe it would be better to use the resources for saving other endangered species after all? We will never have enough resources to save every single species; priorities and sacrifices will have to be made.

         The final calculation is, of course, a bit more complicated. Although the panda’s individual ecological value may not justify the expenses, their reserves have inadvertently offered some protection for other local wildlife. The panda is also a widely recognised symbol for conservation; even the logo of the World Wide Fund for Nature is a stylised version of the bear. Through their celebrity status, the species can serve as a platform for raising general awareness of ecological issues. In the long-term, their campaign potential can lead to general benefits for conservation as a whole.

         More importantly, pandas have a subjective aesthetic appeal that greatly endears it towards the public. Few can resist the almost comical interactions young pandas have with each other and their human handlers. It may thus be easier to campaign for a cuddly black and white bear than, say, the much smaller tropical fishes and somewhat less charismatic corals of the Great Barrier Reef. China may also have multiple incentives to keep the panda, which in many ways have become tied with to the country’s culture as well as foreign diplomacy.

         So the panda will probably continue to enjoy its unusual status despite the occasional doubts, mostly because of its cultural, campaigning and even diplomatic values to society. It may not be the soundest decision from an ecological standpoint, but conservation is alas highly dependent on society’s goodwill. It may not be the most efficient use of the resources, but the panda will keep its special treatment so long as people and nations regard it as an adorable symbol.

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