No, pandas are not a “hopeless and wasteful species”

Bloggers think it's fun to argue that panda bears are evolutionary losers. Here are 9 reasons why they're wrong

Topics: Popular Science, Pandas, Animals, zoology, Evolution, National zoo, ,

A baby panda was born last week at the National Zoo. The National Zoo, and many people not associated with the Zoo, celebrated, because the panda is a very endangered animal and has become an emblem of the conservation movement, and it is very difficult to get pandas to produce surviving offspring in captivity. But because it is 2013, and because it is easier and garners more pageviews to be boldly wrong than boringly right, many internet publications and people who like to argue began a well-trodden argument: the panda deserves to die.

Breeding pandas is “prolonging the existence of a hopeless and wasteful species the world should’ve given up on long ago,” writes Timothy Lavin in Bloomberg. After the death of a panda named Hsing-Hsing, in 2009, David Plotz of Slate wrote: “Pandas are not ill-natured. They are worse: They are no-natured. Drearier animals you cannot imagine. They are highly anti-social, detesting interaction with other pandas and people.” Plotz concluded, “Good riddance to the semi-bear.” Brian Barrett and Sam Biddle, phenomenal writers both (and friends and former coworkers of mine, full disclosure), wrote in Gizmodo that “Nature has made it clear in no uncertain terms that pandas need to die. Now.”

This position is not exactly designed to win an argument; it’s a sort of devil’s advocate thing to say. Nobody really thinks pandas should be ushered into extinction; it’s just something that a certain kind of person (well, a blogger, really. More full disclosure: I am a blogger) thinks is a fun thing to argue. But! It’s also both totally flawed and a genuinely harmful attitude that engenders thoughts about the conservation movement–largely that it’s motivated by a superficial love of cute fluffy things–that can seriously impede its efforts. And the conservation movement directly affects all of us; it affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, the plants and animals we eat, the survival of the planet. It is not frivolous, and it is not helpful to attack it with “edgy” arguments. So! If someone you know says “you know, pandas really just deserve to die out,” this is a guide for getting you through what might otherwise be a very, very tedious night.

Statement: “Pandas have a really ridiculous diet. Can you believe they only eat non-nutritious bamboo?”

Response: So, this statement belies a fundamental, willful misunderstanding of ecosystems and evolution. You don’t get to decide what’s an appropriate diet; whether the animal can survive in its ecosystem (assuming, of course, that we don’t burn it down and build houses there) is the only actual test. Ecosystems are built up of specific niches, wherein each niche can support a species. For example! Many insects lay eggs deep in trees, where they hatch into larvae. There is lots of larvae in trees, and larvae is a very good source of protein, so that creates a niche: an animal can evolve to take advantage of that abundant food source, and thus survive. In North America and Europe, the animal that has figured out how to get those delicious larvae out of the trees is the woodpecker. But in Madagascar, isolated from Africa for millions of years, there are no woodpeckers–but there are still larvae. That food source hasn’t gone unexploited! The aye-aye, a bizarre, scary-looking lemur, has evolved to take the place of the woodpecker. It has a long, thin middle finger, which it taps on the trees to listen for the echo of a grub inside, and then uses its sharp, rodent-like teeth to gnaw out the wood to get to the grub. Is the aye-aye a “bad primate” because it acts like a bird? No, of course not; it simply evolved to take advantage of a food source.

The panda is the same way. Sure, bears are typically omnivores or carnivores, and the panda is a 99 percent bamboo-eater, but that doesn’t make it a “less worthy” animal, because that kind of judgment is ridiculous. Bamboo is a grass that grows absurdly rapidly; it isn’t particularly nutritionally dense, but there is a lot of it, which comes out to the same thing: that is a food source that can be taken advantage of. In other places with lots of vegetation like this, all kinds of different animals can fill that niche. In Australia, where there is lots of low-nutrition but abundant eucalyptus, the koala is there to eat it. In the African grasslands, where there are lots of spiky, unappetizing-looking acacia trees, the giraffe is there to eat it. And in China, where there is lots of bamboo, the panda is there to eat it.

Statement: “But the panda is a bear! Bears aren’t even evolved to eat bamboo!”

Response: Um, well, bears actually eat all kinds of different things. All bears are in the order Carnivora, but that refers to morphological traits like teeth and stomach enzymes rather than diet, and doesn’t imply anything about what an animal’s diet is “supposed” to be. The sloth bear of India eats termites almost exclusively. Polar bears eat hardly anything besides marine mammals (and, in fact, very rarely eat anything but two species of seal). The spectacled bear of South America eats weird vegetation, like the inner bark of trees, orchid bulbs, and cacti, and hardly ever eats meat. There aren’t very many species of bear, but they’re spread all over the world and most have had very little contact with each other. The panda is a very ancient bear, unchanged for millions and millions of years; that’s why it has a special enzyme in its gut to break down the bamboo. That enzyme isn’t, like, a cheat code; the panda survives by eating what it eats. The panda has been here a hell of a lot longer than us, eating bamboo and doing just fine until we came along.

“Pandas have lived on our planet for about three million years,” Heather Stohl of the World Wildlife Fund told The Telegraph. “The big threat is not really an evolutionary one, it’s the fact that their habitat is being destroyed and fragmented.”
To say the panda shouldn’t survive because it’s a bear and bears don’t eat bamboo would be like saying that all Canadians should just die because they’re humans and humans aren’t supposed to live in places that cold. It’s sort of true, in that yes, the panda’s diet is unusual for a bear, and yes, Canadians live in a curious place for a human, but the fact that pandas have survived on a bamboo diet for millions of years and the fact that Canadians are still living up there in the Arctic is the end of that argument. Evolution isn’t a greater than/lesser than situation; pandas don’t need to act the way you think bears should act in order to be gifted with survival. They’re still here, and that’s the only thing that matters.

Statement: “Pandas are so lazy! They just sleep all the time. Why should we care about a sleepy lazy bear?”

Response: Ha ha, I get it, because it’s fun to rank animals based on arbitrary human qualities. And, like, fine, joke around, whatever. Obviously everyone knows that some animals sleep more than others, based on diet and temperament and size and location.

Statement: “It’s dying out so fast because it has such a low birth rate. This is somehow the panda’s fault!”

Response: Some animals have lower birth rates than other animals. “Birth rate” is actually called “natality” when referring to animals, and it varies wildly, as animal species have all kinds of different reproductive strategies. The leatherback sea turtle lays dozens of eggs per mother, burying them in the sandy beaches of South Florida and the Caribbean. The eggs are eaten by raccoons, crabs, dogs, and shorebirds. The ones that survive all hatch at the same time and make a break for it towards the ocean. Those are eaten en masse by predators from land and air. The lucky ones make it to the ocean. There more of them are eaten by marine predators. The turtle’s strategy is to lay so many eggs, and have them all move at once, so predators simply can’t get to all of them.

Other animals have different strategies; many mammals, like humans, have long periods of intense parental care, which protects the offspring in the early stages, preventing the need for quantity. The blue whale gives birth once every two or three years. The jaguar gives birth about once every other year. Some animals reach reproductive age in a few months, some (like the gharial, a relative of the crocodile) can take over a decade. These aren’t worse strategies than the turtle’s; there are no good or bad strategies when you’re talking about this kind of thing. They’ve worked so far. Whether they work or don’t work is the only barometer here; success is a binary.
Pandas often give birth to twins, only one of which is allowed to survive. That, too, is a reproductive strategy, and not a weakness. Having two offspring gives you a doubled chance of giving birth to a strong, viable cub. It sounds cruel to us, because we like to anthropomorphize animals and assume that they think as we do. But they don’t, and the twin thing is just a strategy–and not an unusual one, either.

And animals that have evolved for millions of years to be stable with a certain birth rate (and a certain diet) often can’t just change in a few thousand years as people move in, destroy their habitat, eliminate their food source, shuttle them around from preserve to preserve, and occasionally shoot them. The panda can’t start giving birth more often because it’s critically endangered; that’s not how this works. If you were told that the human race now suddenly depends on being able to give birth every other month and subsisting on oak leaves, it’s not like you could just do that. And that doesn’t make the human race weak! It’s just not how evolution works.

Statement: “Pandas don’t even like to have sex! They’re, like, bad at it, and we have to show them panda porn and stuff.”

Some animals don’t breed well in captivity. This is not a fault! Imagine if you and a person of the opposite sex, whom you’d never met before and in fact might despise or not feel attracted to, were locked in a small glass cage and glowered at by aliens, who got increasingly annoyed that you failed to have sex in front of them. This is a good explainer of why captive breeding is sometimes so hard. There are all kinds of environmental cues that trigger mating amongst animals, and sometimes we have no idea what they are, or can’t provide them. The white rhino, for example, was highly difficult to breed in captivity, because zookeepers were simply putting a male and female near each other and waiting. Turns out, rhinos are herd animals, and for a male to get in the mood, he has to interact with several females before choosing one. The rhino wasn’t too dumb to breed; we were too dumb to figure out how it breeds. Big cats, like cheetahs, also “are extremely tricky to breed in captivity,” Pierre Comizzoli, a research scientists at the National Zoo, told AFP. “If they don’t like each other they are going to kill each other.”

We don’t know why pandas don’t mate well in captivity. So we try all kinds of different tactics, some of which are silly. But it’s pretty ridiculous to blame the panda for that.

Statement: “We’re spending so much money on these dumb bears! We should be spending it elsewhere!”

Response: There’s an inherent flaw with that argument, in that taking money away from something you don’t think is worthwhile hardly ever means that money flows into something you do think is worthwhile. Cutting the budget for the Department of Defense doesn’t mean the Department of Education will suddenly have $500 billion to actually educate America’s youth. Cutting the budget for NASA doesn’t mean we’ll have more money to bomb Syria.

Zoos and governments spend money on pandas because they’re symbolic, because they’re big draws, and because it’s a very prestigious thing to have a panda at your zoo or in your country. Diverting money from saving pandas doesn’t mean we’ll have more money to save the Chinese giant salamander or the forest coconut tree, let alone cute animals like the Amur leopard or greater bamboo lemur.

Plus, this is very little money we’re talking about; zoos don’t usually completely recoup the fees that China charges them to “rent” the bears (yeah, all panda bears in the world officially belong to the People’s Republic, even the ones born in captivity in other countries), but the zoos still make back most of the money. We’re talking about maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, nationwide, in “losses.” Do you have any idea what the Pentagon’s budget is this year? I’ll tell you. It’s well over a trillion dollars. Complaining about the cost of pandas is like complaining about the cost of Netflix. It’s eight dollars. There’s no way that’s your biggest financial concern. Just pay the eight dollars.

Statement: “But Chris Packham said…”

Yeah, I know. Packham, a British television naturalist of the Attenborough variety, said in 2009 that pandas “should be allowed to become extinct.” Packham was, like anyone who makes this argument, being needlessly contentious, but he was actually arguing that panda habitats were so thoroughly destroyed that captive breeding programs would never succeed in reintroducing enough pandas back into the wild to get wild populations to stable levels. There are plenty of conservationists who disagree with Packham, but even if there weren’t, it’s foolish to pick out one minority view and insist that only that view is correct. And you’ll see Packham quoted in every single article that makes the argument that pandas should die.

Statement: “Pandas are just a figurehead; they get way too much money just because they’re cute.

Sure, they’re cute and weird and charismatic, but that’s not a reason to not help them. Pandas are dying because we’re killing them and killing their habitat, not because of some internal flaw. To argue that they’re dying because evolution has just decided it’s the panda’s time to go away is absurd; this is our fault and nobody else’s. You can’t shoot a guy and then argue that if he was stronger and faster and better, he’d have been able to dodge it, so it’s his fault.

Pandas do get a lot of money, but they’re still highly endangered and have a very clear risk of going extinct in the near future, despite all that money. They deserve to live as much as any animal; it’s not fair to hurt their chance of survival just because other people think they’re cute. I’m not even sure that argument makes sense. It’s not like pandas are over-funded and roaming the streets of American suburbs.

Statement: “But why bother saving them at all?”

Response: Partly because it’s completely our fault that they’re dying out, so if we had a basic sense of guilt, we’d make some attempt to prevent their extinction. And partly because it’s a cute weird fluffball and its cuddliness may serve as an introduction to conservation and ecology, and perhaps lead to an interest in learning about those subjects. “So by having pandas in zoos it really engages people-it really is about getting people to care, and that’s important,” Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University, told National Geographic.

But also, pandas are the international symbol for the World Wildlife Fund, and attempts to save them have had generally positive effects on the health of the planet. China, as a rapidly industrializing power, is doing what rapidly industrializing powers do, and mowing down any and all parts of the country that might house profitable manufacturing centers. Yet the fame of the panda has convinced China to create the Chengdu Wolong National Nature Reserve, an enormous protected park of over 770 square miles. It’s home to 150 pandas, but also other rare creatures like the (unrelated) red panda, golden snub-nosed monkey, takin, snow leopard, and clouded leopard, along with untold numbers of rare plants and insects. That land wouldn’t be protected if not for the panda.

The part that really rankles me about these arguments is that they’re made on a simply rhetorical level. They’re made because people think it’s fun to argue. And they pick the panda because it’s an adored emblematic figure, so it’s extra edgy to say it should die. But this isn’t a joke; this is an animal that’s vital to the ecosystem in China (and, consequently, to the rest of the world). It eats bamboo and distributes bamboo seeds, allowing the forest to survive and provide a habitat for birds, insects, and mammals that live there. It’s the main distributor of bamboo seeds in its habitat; to remove it from its ecosystem would have serious, untold effects.

And we have killed it, simply because we felt like it and because it was not able to adapt to human presence in the short time we’ve been around. It’s actively harmful to the environmental and conservationist movement to make these arguments in a non-satirical way.


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