Why save the panda?

Pandas have become the face of conservation, used to gain funding and attract attention. But with more animals facing extinction than ever before, is it working?

The panda debate is a controversial one to say the least. Many argue that the amount spent on pandas could be better spent elsewhere and focusing on charismatic megafauna, like the panda, gorilla, tiger and elephant, only draws attention away from the lesser-known species that need our help more. Chris Packham made the headlines in 2008 when he said, “I’d eat the last panda if I could have the money we’ve spent on panda conservation back on the table for me to do more sensible things with.” This seemed to spark an international debate on the merits of pouring limited conservation resources into the furry species. The main argument is that animals like the panda are suffering so badly from habitat loss that spending large sums on captive breeding is a waste of resources, when there is no wild left to release these animals into. Many conservationists believe adopting a habitat-based approach would be more beneficial in the long run, rather than focusing on a select few species. On the other hand, these species typically have large home ranges, meaning that by conserving them and their habitat, you also help secure the future of all the other species living there, even the smaller ones that may not otherwise be protected. Largely thanks to human activity and behaviour, we are losing species at an alarming rate; this includes amphibians, insects, reptiles, and birds, as well as mammals. At a time when funding is so limited, difficult decisions have to be made as to which animals we concentrate our efforts on. Saving the world is an impossibly huge task, so where do we start?

WWF nicolaloweth

Nicola Loweth, WWF UK Regional Officer for China and India

The World Wildlife Fund is one of the largest and most recognisable organisations dedicated to protecting species

The inspiration for our logo came from Chi-Chi: a giant panda that arrived at London Zoo in 1961 – the same year that WWF was created. Aware of the need for a recognisable symbol that would overcome all language barriers, WWF’s founders agreed that the big, furry bear with her distinctive black and white coat would make a great logo. Sir Peter Scott, one of our founders, said at the time: “We wanted an animal that is beautiful, endangered, and loved by many people in the world for its appealing qualities. We also wanted an animal that had an impact in black and white to save money on printing costs.” The giant panda has now become an instantly recognisable symbol, not just for WWF, but also for the conservation movement as a whole. The Upper Yangtze basin where giant pandas are found is one of the most important global biodiversity hotspots. Although pandas remain threatened, panda conservation is about much more than just the giant panda itself. The status of the giant panda directly reflects the quality of habitat and the health of the entire ecosystem, so protecting wild pandas will also serve to protect many other species of rare plants and wildlife. Recent research found that 70 per cent of China’s endemic forest mammals, 70 per cent of forest birds and 31 per cent of forest amphibians all live within the panda’s range and the nature reserves set aside to protect them. Protecting pandas is also important for people. The forests where pandas live are important for controlling soil erosion and reducing the severity of flooding, so conserving giant panda habitat helps to protect water provisions for millions of people residing in and downstream of the panda’s range. Unfortunately we cannot save every threatened species in the world, but we hope to mitigate key threats. We are in this for the long term and have focused work on many iconic species such as tigers, pandas, and elephants. By conserving key ecosystems, we also provide benefits to all of these species that are found in those habitats, including those less-known or less attractive species. Iconic species can draw attention to the plight of others and help generate support to protect biodiversity that shares the same habitat.

“The many benefits of panda conservation reach far beyond the bears themselves”

iain-valentine-director-of-giant-pandasRZSS Edinburgh Zoo

Iain Valentine, Director of Giant Panda Project and Strategic Innovations 

Edinburgh Zoo is the only organisation in the United Kingdom that houses giant pandas

As a result of a partnership with the China Wildlife Conservation Association – a large, non-profit organisation dedicated to giant panda conservation – the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) is bringing skills in animal nutrition, genetics, embryology, immunology and veterinary medicine, which are vital areas of research for giant pandas, to the global effort to save the species. This will ensure a genetically healthy and diverse population exists ex-situ, as well as in the wild. We are also in the position to aid a fellow conservation body financially, with this money being targeted towards the restoration of bamboo habitat in China.

People are normally very excited to see a giant panda with their own eyes. In many people it brings out a real childlike quality as they gaze at an animal that they’ve read about since they were children and perhaps even owned a cuddly toy of. For many visitors this will be the first and only time they have seen a giant panda without the medium of television. This iconic species is very easy to anthropomorphise – the way they eat sitting up while using their hands and their special pseudo thumb, which is a modified wrist bone. They also have distinctive black eye patches that make their eyes look even bigger and as humans we are programmed to respond to these features in our own young. Giant pandas act as ambassadors, raising awareness about conservation in general; when visitors come to see Tian Tian and Yang Guang they also learn about the plight of many other animals, the importance of preserving ecological diversity and how they can help.

“Giant pandas are too important a species to be allowed to become extinct”


Craig Hilton-Taylor, Head of the IUCN Red List

The IUCN Red List is the world’s largest database of the conservation status of animals. It aims to assess 150,000 species by 2020

Whether the money spent on tigers, elephants and pandas would be better spent across all biodiversity, is hard to say. In many ways spending huge amounts of money on elephants and pandas can be a huge benefit to conservation because those are iconic species; it helps to really get the conservation message home. Many flagship species, such as the African elephant, have wide-ranging habitats, so by conserving them you are conserving really large ecosystems and all the species that live there. The panda is more restrictive and it’s tricky to say that the investment has been worthwhile. But pandas appear to be recovering and we’re hoping in the next year or two we can down-list it and say all that effort has paid off. All of the money was going into ex-situ breeding. Achieving that breakthrough has been hugely successful and the lessons learned from that process can be applied to other species. The husbandry side of it is often ignored. Huge investment went into breeding and raising young panda cubs to adulthood. Valuable lessons have been learned that can be transferred to other species, which have similar problems. It’s often hard to measure all the benefits that go into these things.

On the whole, the vertebrates tend not to be too bad. The most threatened are the amphibians; about 41 per cent are threatened with extinction. Until a global assessment was published in 2004, we had no idea what was happening. There was a massive campaign launched worldwide with zoos, to try and get vulnerable amphibians into captive breeding situations until we could resolve what the problem was. They finally worked out it was the impact of an invasive fungus, called chytrid fungi, resulting in a disease called chytridiomycosis. It’s a massive disease epidemic driving lots of frog species towards extinction very rapidly. We have already lost several iconic species. Yet it’s not just well-known species at risk; it’s lots of species, which is why we run other fundraising campaigns. We linked our bumblebee campaign to food security because they play a vital role in pollinating crops. People could buy into that and understand the importance of conserving bumblebees. It’s going to be a bigger challenge for us when we want to look at snakes or spiders, or things people don’t really like much. However, it can be amazing how quickly people’s perceptions can change – marketing is key. You’re competing with campaigns for all iconic species but it’s how you use and link those two things together. You need to get the balance right.

“Pandas have been expensive to protect, but it may be a conservation success story”


Paul Hetherington

Director of Fundraising and Communications  

BugLife are the only organisation in Europe dedicated to conserving and protecting all invertebrate species

Invertebrates are difficult to fundraise for because people don’t see them as cute and cuddly. People tend to take them for granted and don’t realise how important they are to life as we know it. There is probably some awareness now for how important pollination is to our continued existence. As a result, public awareness about bees is very positive; however if you actually show most people a picture of a bee, with the exception of the bumblebee, they will call it a wasp or a hornet. Instead of relying on images, we have to talk up contributions that invertebrates like earthworms and dung beetles make to the planet. We’ve now got a costing on the dung beetle, which is just shy of £300 million per annum to the British farming economy. They have a real monetary value.

Lions and rhinos are big and they’re very photogenic, but you can’t save them if you don’t save the smaller creatures. Without them, lions and rhinos wouldn’t be able to exist because their food would disappear. That’s the difficult thing that you have to try and get across to funders. If you want to do a promotion, you’d probably much rather put a cuddly orangutan on it than some sort of weird spider wouldn’t you? Having said that, raising money for the iconic species can be helpful if it leads to preservation of large areas, because it is likely to benefit all of the plants and animals that live there. Yet sometimes it can have a negative impact because they create a brand new reserve when an area is under threat and in doing so they destroy other habitats.

One problem is with the Iberian lynx, which is quite endangered. Some great work is going on to try and preserve it, but all the captive bred lynx that are released into the wild have been flea-treated with different worming tablets. So even more endangered than the lynx are the parasitic invertebrates that live only on the lynx and they are facing extinction far faster. Why should we care? From a selfish perspective, we don’t know how that one little creature may benefit us in the future. An awful lot of things in medicine have come from invertebrates, such as hypodermic needles from looking at mosquitoes, and more recently the sting of a wasp in Brazil has been investigated as a possible cure for cancer. There is so much we have discovered and so much yet to discover.

“The iconic species are cute, but they won’t survive unless we protect smaller creatures”

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