Pandas were once a mascot for the conservation movement and zoo rehabilitation in particular. But in the last few years, they’ve become an object of disdain and symbol of what is wrong with conservation, for some. From a 2013 article:
[T]he first test of a species’ worthiness for conservation should be some instinct for self-preservation. And pandas fail objectively.
First, their breeding habits don’t suggest a species brimming with vitality. Pandas at a research center in Chengdu were so disinclined to mate that workers there subjected the poor things to Viagra and videos of other bears procreating, hoping they’d get the idea. Zoos, including in Washington, more often resort to artificial insemination. In the wild, where birthrates aren’t much better, pandas are prone to inbreeding. Females only ovulate for a few days each year, and if a mother does manage to have more than one cub, she abandons the weakling. That’s fine; nature’s mean. But don’t whine when a species with such habits falls into inexorable decline.
Second, although blessed with a bear’s predatory teeth, the lethargic beasts eat almost nothing but bamboo — a plant that’s nearly devoid of nutritional value and disappearing in the wild. Pandas consume 40 pounds of it a day, eating constantly, speeding their own demise.
“Here’s a species that of its own accord has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” Chris Packham, a British author and wildlife activist, said in 2009. He argues that “the panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half-century.”
Pandas, supporters argue, are given the attention they do only because they are undeniably adorable, which inspires even the least conservation-minded people to protect them. This has three effects: (1) informs people about the conservation movement; (2) brings people into zoos to see the pandas, which exposes them to other wildlife; and (3) protecting panda habitat also protects habitat for other species. This third idea is known as the “umbrella concept,” writes Shelby Hofstetter at the EEB and Flow:
The reality of the umbrella species concept may not be as simple however- there is some debate over how well it actually works. In some cases the large habitats required for the umbrella species do not overlap with biodiversity hotspots for other types of organisms like invertebrates, plants, amphibians or reptiles. And unfortunately, even in cases where these pieces of habitat would provide protection for additional species, safeguarding the large amount of land necessary is often unrealistic.
So how do we pick which species to protect? He presents a few examples, including one that was new to me: protecting species that have a long evolutionary history, recorded in their genes. Hofstetter:
Another response to this conservation riddle is aptly named the “Noah’s Ark Problem”, and is a framework for choosing species for conservation based on cost and likelihood of survival, but also on phylogenetic diversity. This objective focus on phylogenetic diversity, or the amount of genetic history that a species contains, has gained momentum in recent years and is aimed at saving species that encapsulate high amounts of Earth’s evolutionary life history. The hope is that phylogenetic diversity is correlated with genetic diversity in general, which could also give these species a better chance of adapting to a changing planet.
NB: Pandas do better than you might think as an umbrella species, wrote John Platt (my former co-blogger at Scientific American) earlier this fall:
The research looks at China’s endemic wildlife—species that exist nowhere else on Earth—and found that 70 percent of the country’s forest mammals, 70 percent of forest birds and 31 percent of forest amphibians all live within the panda’s geographic range and the nature reserves set aside to protect them. All told, 96 percent of this range overlaps with important conservation areas for other endemic forest species.
Pandas do protect a lot although a few species fall outside the umbrella. The research found that 14 of China’s endemic forest mammals, as well as 20 birds and 82 amphibians, are not currently protected by the giant panda’s current reserves. The paper identifies 10 locations that might be suitable for new or improved nature reserves to help expand that coverage. Many of these areas, located in Sichuan Province, which is considered the stronghold of giant pandas in the wild, are adjacent to existing reserves.