There are just over 1600 giant pandas left alive in the wild, 239 in breeding projects in China and 27 outside of the country. Scotland has recently been rejoicing because this number is about to rise to 29. Edinburgh zoo with the help of our very own deputy prime minister is about to close a deal with China (Why is our deputy prime minister so interested in pandas?...more on this mystery later!) No other animal has caused as much conservation controversy as the Giant Panda, and for good reason!
The Giant Panda became the poster boy of the World Wildlife Fund in the 1960s and what a brilliant poster boy he has been. The panda is critically endangered bear that lives in isolated habitat primarily in Sichuam province and is an extreme dietary specialist. 99% of its diet is two different forms of bamboo and it needs both varieties in order to survive. The bamboo plant is also a habitat based specialist and thus the panda needs a combination of both lowland and rainy mountain terrain in order meet its nutritional needs. Just for an added bonus, the animals are natural loners, they have incredibly low birth rates, and is virtually impossible to breed in captivity (with most successes via artificial insemination).
The panda, it seems just really wasn't cut out for life in the 21st century, it would be very difficult to make up an animal with as many survival and reproduction problems as the panda. Their mating season only lasts from March to May and the female pandas oestrous cycle lasts a mere two or three days for the year! If twins are born (which would be a real boost for these guys) only one will survive in the wild. The mother will let the weaker one die as she does not store fat reserves and so cannot feed two cubs. For the first 75 days of its life the panda cub cannot even really move and the mother must leave it for 3-4 hours a day in order to feed, in this time it is totally defenceless.
Some conservationists have naturally asked the question: 'Why bother? When there are so many other species at risk, only such limited money and effort, why invest so much in something so awful?'.
I think this question comes from a legitimate feeling but is slightly misplaced. Pandas may seem to us as being awful. They cannot get used to life in fast lane, they need a specific habitat and specific food and they have obscure mating rituals. In many ways I love Pandas because we don't get them, they are aliens living among us. Their biology is so totally different to ours. We hairless apes are super generalists, live everywhere on the planet, eat everything we can get our thumbs on and mate constantly. Saying the pandas are bad at what they do is failing to understand the panda, it is seeing the world out of the eye of a generalist.
This is not actually how the world is, the vast majority of species around are not like us. They are species evolved over millions of years with very tight and specific interactions. Fish that only eat one type of algae, wasps that only pollinate one type of fig and lynxes that only eat one type of hare. We see the world from our rat eye view, we are saving only the good species right now. As our human army plunders our way across the planet we bring our camp followers with us, animals like rats, foxes, raccoons, dogs, cats and weedy plants. They are made in our image, generalists who spread and wipe out all of these 'not so good' species. The panda is good at what it does..which is being a panda! It has evolved and survived for long before we got to China, when countless animals have gone extinct before it the panda pulled through living off a resource no other animal could eat.
Is the panda a waste of money? Well yes, keeping it in Zoos in sunny Edinburgh, flying the last few of these animals around the world for us to gawk at is a colossal waste of money. Playing panda porn to animals trapped tens of thousands of miles from its natural homeland, in a cage a fraction the size of its native range is 21st century madness. It is not seeing the world the way the panda sees it, is assuming that every animal in the world can and will live exactly how we can...in a box pumped full of moving images. Pandas don't do that!
I dont like being in a Zoo!!!
Is preserving and maintaining and restoring panda habitat a waste of money? Is saving all of the other animals and plants that share the habitat with these big sleepy specialists a waste of money? I don't think so, the panda problem is not going to be fixed by trading them for economic favours with the Chinese. It is going to be fixed by habitat restoration and protection in China.
On a final note I would like to also point out the complete and utter madness of these talks with China that resulted in Scotland getting the pandas. The panda deal was a footnote to a £2.6 billion trade agreement with China (This is why Clegg was there). The single largest portion of this was the Grangemouth refinery, which struck a landmark deal with Chinas largest oil and gas firm. BP and China national oil also signed a deal committed to deep water drilling in the South China Sea, Land rover agreed to sell 40,000 more vehicles to China and Great Britain with our Great British diplomacy skips around the EU embargo to China on high technology items with dual military applications. All in the name of jobs, trade, industry, oh and two pandas. Pandas traded in oil, cars and gun parts, all the things that lead to less pandas in the long run.