“Aren’t pandas ridiculous? If they only eat bamboo and don’t like sex, don’t they deserve to go extinct?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this kind of argument over the past few years and now we have to put up with a BBC natural history presenter spouting something similar.
"Here's a species that, of its own accord, has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” BBC presenter Chris Packham told the Radio Times in a blog posted earlier this week. “It's not a strong species,” he said.
This pisses me off, not because I’ve been living and breathing pandas for the last few months as I research and write a book on them, but because it’s the worst kind of evolutionary imperialism. More than that, it’s quite simply poorly reasoned twaddle.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit. If you live in a mountainous forest where 95% of the vegetation is bamboo, it makes abundant sense to find a way to eat the stuff. In fact, I would argue, it is a phenomenal behavioural and physiological achievement that these carnivores – for that is what they are – have turned away from a meat-eating lifestyle and found a way to extract what they need from this single, sinewy food source.
When it comes to reproduction, the same goes. Pandas are really rather good at it, so long as humans leave them to it. So good in fact that a female, who is fertile for just a couple of days a year, rarely fails to become pregnant in the wild. What they are not so good at is sex in zoos, but then it’s rather unfair to expect them to perform so far out of their geographical comfort zone.
What Packham doesn’t appear to realise is that pandas are on the verge of extinction not because they are fussy eaters or shit at sex but because Homo sapiens has destroyed all but a few tiny pockets of their bamboo landscape. The good news – and there is a bit – is that the protection afforded the remaining 1600 pandas is pretty good and their imminent extinction is, I believe, by no means inevitable.
Packham’s main point in the blog is not quite so irritating. "We pour millions of pounds into panda conservation," he said. "I reckon we should pull the plug. Let them go, with a degree of dignity.” It’s worth thinking about but not for long as the World Wildlife Fund’s chief scientist Mark Wright explains in today’s Guardian.
If Packham imagines that the disappearance of pandas will free up more money for conservation, he’s probably wrong. In suggesting as much, he shows a profound ignorance of human nature. If we don’t have pandas to clutch onto, we’ll find something else that’s cute and cuddly. It’s just the way that human brains are wired. WWF knows this only too well and use the panda (and other species icons) to trigger an emotional response, then use the money for conservation of habitats, ecosystems and the biggest problem of our age – global warming.
Not only do most people disagree with Packham’s views (at the latest count a Guardian poll had almost 80% in favour of keeping pandas) but the flagship role of pandas is of immense value.
So if it came to Packham or pandas, I know which one I’d let go. The only thing I’m still undecided on is whether it would be with or without dignity.