Should we be saving the giant panda_ _ redbrick _ university of birmingham


The distinctive giant panda is an animal famous for being endangered. With its big black eye patches, cuddly appearance and overall likeability, it is easy to see why many argue in favour of saving this bear from extinction. But with only a few thousand individuals left in the wild and breeding programmes not always proving successful, is the giant panda really where we should be focusing our conservation efforts?

It is inescapable that saving

this animal is very expensive. Breeding centres spend millions of dollars each year and the giant panda’s specific diet makes it difficult to keep in captivity. About 99% of the panda’s diet consists of bamboo which makes them expensive to keep in zoos.

“’Giant pandas end up digesting only about 17% of what they eat…’Many also argue that the panda is not worth saving due to it being an ‘evolutionary dead-end’, mostly in reference to its poor adaptation to its bamboo diet. Being a bear means its evolutionary ancestors were carnivorous or omnivorous, so meat would have been a key feature in their diets. But the giant panda rarely eats meat or anything other than bamboo in the wild, although a more varied diet is sometimes given in zoos. A key component of bamboo is cellulose, a substance that is tough to break down, requiring specialised enzymes. A study looked at the droppings of various different pandas to analyse the bacteria that were in their gut. It found that their digestive system was better equipped to the diet of an omnivore and that they had low levels of plant-digesting enzymes. This means that they end up digesting only about 17% of what they eat.

On top of this, it is well-known that reproduction rates of giant pandas are low, with the females only being able to mate for about 2-3 days per year. This is the main factor for unsuccessful breeding attempts in captivity. Another significant problem for the giant panda is deforestation. They live in only a few mountainous regions in central China and the destruction of their habitat is causing a significant decline in their numbers.

So with all these issues faced by conservation efforts to save the giant panda, is it really worth it? Recent research says yes. It suggests that saving the giant panda may also be helping local animals. They looked at other vulnerable species that are endemic, meaning they are found only in China, and found that these animals’ habitats overlap the location where the giant pandas now live, in the Sichuan province in central China.

“’…investing in saving the giant panda’s habitat will have an umbrella effect over other animals…’This means that investing in saving the giant panda’s habitat will have an umbrella effect over these other animals such as the golden pheasant, the Tibetan macaque and the golden snub-nosed monkey. Giant pandas have a big influence over conservation decisions and without them, these animals’ habitats may have been destroyed, as they are less well-known, with fewer campaigns to save them. So the argument that we are wasting resources on the giant panda and neglecting other species that need help may not stand up to this evidence: it shows that they are in fact indirectly benefiting.

There is even some contradictory research on the panda’s poor adaptation to their diet. Some studies have found evidence that pandas do in fact have specialised gut bacteria to digest the tough cellulose in bamboo to maximise the nutrition gained from their food. This suggests that their diet may not be as big a contributory factor to their extinction as first thought. It is thought that giant pandas first evolved their bamboo exclusive diet around 2 million years ago. So the fact is that they have survived a long time with this unusual diet.

So is it really as bad as it seems? Many argue it is their habitat destruction that is the main issue for the pandas and remedying this should be the focus of conservation efforts. Even considering their low reproduction rate, pandas are actually quite successful in that respect in the wild, although they appear to lose interest in mating in captivity.

There are many good arguments for and against saving the giant panda, and it remains a commonly discussed topic. Although the millions of dollars spent could be used elsewhere, the pandas may have a significant effect on general conservation in China. Since they have survived with their bamboo diet and unusual reproductive cycle for millions of years, deforestation may be the main issue for them, and protecting their habitat could be very important for both them and other local species. It seems that money spent on the giant panda may not have been wasted after all.

Yes. Most of the arguments against fail because they fail to understand the difference between cost and value. Since all eco systems are incredibly complex, the removal of one key component can have far wider and more serious implications than simply losing one animal species. The cost of saving the Panda may be high, but the value of saving an environment that it supports is beyond price as it impacts on us as well.

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