It is time to let pandas go into that good night.
I’m not trying to sound cavalier by saying this. Death is incredibly sad – it always is. And the death of an entire species is enough to chill your very bones (especially chilling when we had no small hand in it). But as we know in our own human lives, in our own experience with the matter, there certainly is an appropriate time to let someone we love go. Though we humans certainly do love the black and white, bamboo-munching, YouTube-sneezing, giant pandas of China, it is now time to let them go.
I, and others who would argue this, are not in any way unaware or unfeeling toward the tragedy of the pandas’ extinction and the collective guilt we humans must feel about our role in triggering it. What I would say is the opposite – I feel this tragedy, this species loss, so much in fact, I must try and vocalize concern that focusing so much of our conservation energies on the panda will in part drive other species to the brink instead. I worry about the roots of that focus.
This was a hard conclusion to come to, but let me tell you why I believe we should curb our panda conservation efforts.
While I do not believe that conservation is an absolute zero-sum game, I do strongly believe that inefficiencies and misguided efforts in this area can be very detrimental toward conservation goals as a whole. Pandas are a conservation inefficiency, which is hurting many other species that could use a fraction of the money, energy or attention that pandas are burning through.
As of 2015, “There are now 41,415 species on the IUCN Red List, and 16,306 of them are endangered species threatened with extinction. This is up from 16,118 last year. This includes both endangered animals and endangered plants,” according to an Endangered Earth article titled “Promoting the Plight of Endangered Species and the Efforts to Save Them.”
Endangered Earth also detailed that “Extinctions are a natural part of evolutionary processes, but through most of the history of life on Earth, biological diversity has been increasing,” and that “In the last 500 years, human activity has forced over 800 species into extinction.” Giant pandas are, unfortunately, about to join that list. If we say that we won’t let that happen “at any cost,” then many, many others species will have to serve in their stead.
Conservation, like any other area where crisis so outweighs resources, must include pragmatic choice and not get dangerously swayed by emotional attachment.
The debate on the giant panda presses us to specify and better our goals in conservation in this, our anthropogenic wave of extinction.
Science Alert in their article, “WATCH: Should we let pandas go extinct?” puts a voice to these questions. Do we focus on species closest to the brink of extinction? Or do we concentrate on ecological lynchpins – species that would have the greatest impact on the surrounding ecosystem if they no longer were around? Can we even consider economy, make the most out of conservation funds and secure the saving of species that would cost the least with the best chance of future survival?
The panda species are in their death throes. In captivity, they’re watching panda pornography and faking pregnancy, and in the wild their diminishing gene pool is resulting in inbreeding. Humans have destroyed their habitat; their reproductive and diet inefficiencies, while allowing them a long run of evolutionary success, also left them especially vulnerable to this wave of extinction. We’re at the point of no return where the cost of saving the giant panda has outweighed its chances and benefits.
Naturalist Chris Packham, in the Guardian, argued this: “I’m saying we won’t be able to save it all, so let’s do the best we can. And at the moment I don’t think our strategies are best placed to do that. We should be focusing our conservation endeavours on biodiversity hotspots, spreading our net more widely and looking at good-quality habitat maintenance to preserve as much of the life as we possibly can, using hard science to make educated decisions as to which species are essential to a community’s maintenance.”
My side of this argument sounds like the hopeless side, like we’re too-quickly giving up on the beloved panda. But really, it takes quite a bit of optimism to argue this. Really, it’s the hopeful side. Panda advocates have to argue that panda conservation provides a protective shield for other species in their ecosystem, among other things, to justify their stance, while I believe that once we curb our panda obsession, conservation can still inspire people to raise money, attention and energy even without the cute, fuzzy, symbolic face.
We have to design better strategies than throwing money at the few animals that the public falls in love with and hoping for the best. In as big of a crisis as we find ourselves in (called by some the Sixth Great Extinction), we have to maximize the good we can affect and design efficient strategies around what our true conservation aspirations are.
Let the giant panda go out into that good night; we’ve done our raging against the dying of the light. Let the panda go out into that good night, so that we can quicken the rise of the next day.