Pandas are Dying Out. We Should Let Them.

With its black and white fur, grizzly body, and insatiable appetite for bamboo, the Chinese giant panda has starred as the mascot of the world’s nature conservation efforts for decades. For some people, it’s a national pride, for others, a cute Disney character, and for some, even the symbol of a fast food restaurant. Billions of dollars and media attention have gone to this black and white creature, more so than any animal out there in the world. But as China finalizes its plans for a new $2 billion dollar panda reserve three times the size of Yellowstone, and with worrying new research being published, I have questions about how deserving pandas are of such unequivocal love.

As someone who grew up walking distance from the Beijing National Zoo, I’ve been gawking at these giant bears every summer since I was born. Back then, I—like everyone else in the world—loved pandas with all my heart. And even now, I don’t want to see them die. But I’ve begun to have doubts. As more and more animals are added to the endangered list each day, and as our world begins to see (but ignore) more and more signs of climate change, my appreciation for the ever increasing zeros in panda conservation budgets has slowly started to waver. It may be time to do some spring cleaning. 

Just to be clear, I am not trying to play god—just his C.F.O. And this C.F.O. says that it may be time to move on. Pandas are essentially a two billion dollar domino. Notorious for their strange genetics and fragility, the bear is extremely susceptible to any form of environmental harm. Possessing a carnivorous digestive system yet intaking a herbivorous diet, the panda must spend 80 percent of its day eating one of the least nutritious plants on the planet–while only being able to digest 17 percent of it. If a panda’s habitat were to experience just one natural disaster, whether that be an earthquake or a fire, the panda may not have enough bamboo to survive, let alone safely reproduce. It’s also to be noted that panda habitat naturally rejects the animal, with bamboo forests periodically dying off in an attempt to starve bears in the area to death. Usually this would lead to a slow migration to a different area, but with the land around the panda unfortunately so drastically changed by man made roads and structures, the species can now only wait for death. What will this massive budget have done then?

Now, you may say, “Raymond, with human intervention, we can easily save this oh so lovable creature!” However, pandas are nearly unsaveable.  The China state forestry administration states that out of the five hundred pandas in captivity, only two captive born males have ever successfully mated. Almost 70 percent of inseminations in captivity are artificial, and the birth rate is still so laughably low that it makes national news when a bear is born. So much so that we show these creatures panda porn just to get a male-female pair to even interact with each other. We’re paying $2 billion dollars to watch pandas lazily run themselves to the ground. 

And if by now, you are still saying, “Raymond, pandas are worth these two billion dollars. The panda still plays a crucial role in the ecosystem. They’re important to keep around for as long as possible.” And this is the time where I kindly and sadly say that you are…wrong again. A decade of research by Dr. Fang Wang, an ecologist at Fudan University in Shanghai, has shown that pandas may even cause harm to their own environment. When analyzing the data of camera traps in panda reserves for over the past decade, Dr. Wang found that large carnivores such as the leopard, snow leopard, wolf, and dhole (all of them at-risk or endangered species) have retreated where pandas take residence. The wolf and dhole have become “functionally extinct” within these panda residences. Professor Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London has described how conservation in China and other parts of the world are typically based around landscape protection for specific, high revenue generating “flagship species,” thus removing the natural balance and biodiversity of the original ecosystem. The byproduct of this interference is, unfortunately, the lives of other species, showing us that the panda and its billion dollar cost is not as beneficial as it is made to be. 

Biologically inefficient, artificially preserved, naturally doomed, environmentally harmful, and ridiculously expensive. The situation behind the cute eyes of the Chinese giant panda is sadly disappointing. Yet even through all of this, I do not hate the animal. After all, it has done nothing wrong by struggling to survive. What I’m truly disappointed in is us, and the fact that we treat dying species’ lives like it’s some reality TV trope, picking and choosing what survives and what doesn’t. There are countless other endangered species struggling to survive—wolves, dholes, sea otters, leopards, and more—that we barely bat an eye to. Underneath the towering shadow of the panda, they falter one by one, underfunded and overlooked. But yes, spend those millions so we can make some more panda porn. Ready, one, two, three, save the pandas! Right?