Giant pandas no longer endangered species
Everyone loves a panda. We have spent millions rescuing them and good news: it worked! But is this really conserving the planet — or creating a world in our own image and to our own taste?
Early this month, the keepers at Zoo Atlanta were focused on one job above all others: watching the giant panda Lun Lun. The 19-year-old bear was expecting twins, and panda pregnancies are famously difficult. Then, at 7:20am one Saturday, the first cub finally arrived. Forty-five minutes later, its twin followed. ‘We’re thrilled and relieved,’ said the zoo.
More good news was just around the corner. The next day, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced that giant pandas have been taken off the official endangered species list. ‘The Chinese government’s efforts are effective,’ the report said. There are now over 2,000 pandas in the wild and in zoos across the globe.
It could be temporary; they are still ‘vulnerable’, and scientists warn that climate change could wipe out one third of their natural bamboo habitat in the next 80 years. But for now, conservationists can celebrate the fact that one of the world’s most popular endangered animals has been given a reprieve.
For less charismatic creatures, it is another story. Species are going extinct at around 1,000 times the natural rate. It is hard to know how many we are losing in real terms — scientists have a better idea of the number of stars in the sky than unique species on Earth — but estimates say between 24 to 200 die out every day. Few get the multi-million pound breeding programmes which helped Lun Lun.
Why do pandas get so much attention and not, say, arboreal alligator lizards? Zoologist Nathan Yaussy says the answer is obvious: we care most about the animals we find cute. It is ‘hard-wired’ into us: ‘the more baby-like an animal is, the more we want to save it.’ If they are useful to the economy or anthropomorphic, then so much the better.
But some ‘ugly’ creatures — like ants — are far more important to the environment, yet they receive less attention. Is it wrong to be so selective?
Yes, say some. It is wildly selfish to pay attention only to the fuzziest mammals with the widest eyes, while letting thousands of insects and reptiles disappear without a second thought. Are we really so narrow-minded that we can only care about the creatures we deem to be good looking, useful or ‘just like us’?
It’s not all bad, insists a senior director at the World Wildlife Fund (whose logo is, of course, a panda). Focusing on ‘flagship’ animals attracts attention to conservation projects, and saving them often means protecting their habitats. These are shared with any number of lesser-known species, which all get to reap the benefits. Others go even further: humans are the Earth’s most influential species. What’s wrong with shaping the world to suit us?
- If you could keep one species from ever going extinct (other than humans, smartypants), which would you choose?
- Is it wrong to care more about cute animals than others?
- Read the list of ‘ugly’ endangered animals under Become An Expert (it is the fifth link). Rewrite the list, ranking the animals from most to least important. What influenced your decisions?
- Choose an endangered animal you care about, and design a plan to save it. Include campaign posters and a short report explaining how you would increase its population.
Some People Say...
“Pandas are ridiculous — they deserve to be extinct.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- How can it be wrong to like cute animals?
- It’s not — we are very fond of them at The Day too. The question is whether the millions spent on preserving ‘charismatic megafauna’ (science speak for large, popular animals) would be better spent on saving the most environmentally useful species — those which keep Earth’s ecosystems ticking over. And we haven’t even had time to mention plants...
- What will happen if all the animals go extinct?
- It would be bad news for humans. We would have to go vegetarian, but the planet’s environment is a delicate web of animals and plants depending on each other to survive. Without bees to pollinate flowers or animals to fertilise soil, plants would start to disappear too. And climate change would quickly get worse without all that handy photosynthesis.
- Lun Lun
- Lun Lun was born in captivity in China. She is a very successful mother — these are her second set of twins, and she has also given birth to three single cubs.
- Female pandas are only fertile once a year (in spring), leaving a very small window of time for breeders. It is very hard to see whether a panda is expecting until the final stages of pregnancy. And once the cubs are born, they are blind and totally helpless, needing constant care for the first months of their lives.
- 1,000 times
- According to a study by the conservationist Stuart Pimm in 2014.
- Breeding programmes
- In 2006 National Geographic reported that giant pandas cost each zoo $2.6m per year. Cubs add an extra $3m.
- Arboreal alligator lizards
- These colourful Mexican lizards are very rare, and several species are listed as critically endangered.
- Something with human-like characteristics.
- Not all ants are endangered, but some species — like the Australian dinosaur ant — are. Ants have huge impacts on the environment; scientists describe them as ‘ecosystem engineers’.