Pandas are gorgeous – wide-eyed, fluffy, and docile – just the sort of animal we enjoy anthropomorphising. When I was five all I wanted was a toy panda to cuddle, luckily Santa delivered a giant one, and he became a favourite toy throughout my childhood. When my first son was born a friend made him a toy panda. So we grow up with pandas as lovable bears we want to hug – a cute and friendly animal that acts as great emotional tug plug for the Worldwide Fund for Nature. But what about the pandas – what do they want? Pandas do not possess a strong instinct to procreate, giving birth is a perilous experience for the young cub, coupled with the mothers initially struggle to nurture their young. So why are we spending millions on protecting them from extinction? Should the resources be spent on protecting other organisms that have a greater value to the planet?
I visited the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Foundation last year – a difficult experience as I struggle to watch any animal in captivity even for conservation purposes – the cage is an alien concept. The centre is beautifully landscaped with drifting swathes of bamboo gracing every bank (pandas diet is 99% bamboo) and I have no doubt the pandas are well cared for. I watched some videos of the centre’s breeding programme and gingerly joined the others gawping at the lethargic bears languishing in the trees. It’s an unsettling place especially after reading the book ‘Do We Need Pandas? The uncomfortable truth about biodiversity.’ by scientist Dr Ken Thompson.
Do we need pandas?