Chris Packham got all kinds of flack for his controversial suggestion this week that the giant panda should be allowed to die out naturally and “with a degree of dignity”. The panda is a weak species, he claims, and we should let evolution take its course:
“Here is a species that, of its own accord, has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac….unfortunately it’s big and cute and a symbol of the World Wide Fund for Nature and we pour millions of pounds into [its] conservation”.
He’s got a point with the panda. It’s an unwieldy animal that has inexplicably evolved to live on a diet of 99% bamboo shoots. Since it has the digestive system of a carnivore, it can’t even digest the bamboo’s cellulose properly, so has to spend almost the whole day eating, just to get enough nutrition. So he’s probably right to say the panda is on its way out, in evolutionary terms.
But the only reason the panda population has come this close to extinction so rapidly is because of human impact upon its habitat. It could be tens or hundreds of thousand more years before the panda died out naturally.
It’s true the panda is big and cute and people are perhaps a bit sentimental about it. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing if it means the general population sits up and take notice of its plight.
I was alarmed to read on the IUCN’s Red List just many species are under threat. Its latest report says a third of amphibians, one in eight birds, and nearly a quarter of mammals are threatened with extinction.
It’s even worse for some plant groups – a third of conifers and a half of all cycads are dying out.
But an obscure palm-type thing coming close to extinction is never going to hit the headlines like the panda, rightly or wrongly.
And as WWF’s Mark Wright points out, charismatic megafauna can be extremely useful because, by saving the habitat of a large animal, high up the food chain, you by definition protect a much larger area than if you protect the habitat of a smaller creature.
Several days later and Packham has still not backed down, though he apologised to the Mirror for upsetting any panda lovers.
I’m not with him on letting the panda die out, but there’s one thing I do agree with Packham on: all publicity is good publicity where conservation is concerned.