Wednesday, 8 December 2010

How do zoos choose?

The standardized pictures of 17 macaw species from PLoSOne 
Which of these macaws do you find the most attractive?

There's an interesting paper in PLoSOne entitled "Being Attractive Brings Advantages" in which a team of scientists from the Czech Republic and Germany provide some rather nice evidence that supports what we all suspect: that "the size of zoo populations is not only determined by conservation needs, but also by the perceived beauty of individual parrot species assessed by human observers."

If you're like the repsondents to their survey, then you'll have a preference for larger body size, longer tail and blue, orange or yellow colouration (preferred in that order). Green parrots don't do quite so well. "Visual inspection of the most prominent losers (e.g., Psittrichas fulgidus, Nestor notabilis, N. meridionalis, Cacatua tenuirostris, Enicognathus leptorhynchus) suggests that they usually possess an exaggerated, hawk-like beak (curved and sharp), which might be perceived by humans as weaponry," speculate the authors. Or they're just not that interesting to look at.

The authors have then looked for a correlation between the preference rank and the world captive population of each species. They found one.

Of course, this isn't really that surprising. Zoos came into existence as entertainment and still have to fulfill this function. But it's the balance between entertainment and conservation that's at stake here. What is a slightly more surprising finding is that neither the IUCN Red List category nor the taxonomic uniqueness of each species had any obvious relationship to the size of the captive population.

For the authors, this supports the hypothesis "the fate of the species may be considerably affected by its core attractiveness to humans." Pandas anyone?

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Panda Makers

Well panda fans, that was good wasn't it?

I'm talking of course about Panda Makers, the BBC2 Natural World documentary on pandas and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. I thought it was going to be solely focused on the captive effort and whilst this was where all the photo opportunities were, the hour-long documentary covered just about every important panda base there is. You can watch it again on BBC iPlayer.

There are some very funny bits, like when the sexually frustrated male Pin-Pin performs some kind of pole dance and though Sir David Attenborough makes a cheap gag at the expense of the panda's "disproportionately short penis" and "startling deficiency" he quickly reigns in the frivolity: "It's a myth that pandas aren't interested in sex. They're just picky about their partners."

The documentary roams frequently out of the Base, up into the mountains to show some wild footage and there's a delightful sequence of archival footage, including some film of Ruth Harkness and Su-Lin, some of which I hadn't seen before. I thought the Mei-Lan side-story was a great touch, pulling the viewer away from the Base for a bit and following the Zoo Atlanta panda back to Chengdu. The branding of the aircraft reminded me very much of the way Chi-Chi received VIP (very important panda) treatment on her flight to Moscow in 1966. I did feel very sorry for Heather, the Zoo Atlanta keeper who raised Mei-Lan and then chaperoned her back to the Chengdu Base; that looked like a fraught physical and emotional journey and I'd like to interview her about it. The footage of Li-Li giving birth was amazing. Well done to film-maker Sorrel Downer, who spent two years shooting this documentary. You can listen again to a nice interview with her on BBC4's Womans' Hour last week.

I think I liked it so much because Sir David's take on pandas was very close to mine. He celebrated the strides in Chinese science, the international collaboration but did not shy away from the commercial flip-side and the difficulties of reintroduction. Nevertheless, this kind of emblematic effort is stilll worth pursuing, he argued. "If we can't protect the long-term survival of the giant panda...what chanced do we have of protecting those species that do not entertain us."

I couldn't have put it better.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Post-publication depression

I have post-publication depression. I put so much effort into growing my book The Way of the Panda, nurturing it into existence and now it’s out, I feel a little lost.

I want to write another book because it is so much fun. The research, the thinking and the writing gives the kind of creative reward that news and features do not. Waiting for reviews to appear – particularly the first few – is quite nauseating, but if they are good (as, thankfully, they have been for TWOTP) then the relief is a great boost. The marketing – the spin-off articles, interviews and talks or lectures – is strangely enjoyable too.
It just feels a little like the whole panda ride is already coming to an end.

In order to try to banish my panda blues, I have decided to move on and incubate my next book. The proposal is with my agent right now. I am also working on two other ideas. More soon...