Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Should Pandas be left to die?

I am sometimes allowed to go to dinner parties.

And at a recent dinner party, I found that a few of my opinions ebbed unhappily against fashionable wisdom:-

No, international law doesn't really exist, if it is not enforceable.

No, "denialism" is not actually a helpful term for encouraging public engagement in respect of climate change.

However, some of my opinions bobbed happily with the conventional flow:

Yes, Blair distorted both international law and intelligence so as to invade Iraq.

Yes, human rights are universal and should be enforceable.

But it took a quiet scientist to raise a topic of genuine controversy.


It would appear that there are some who urge that pandas should be "allowed" to die out.

Chris Packham is the pundit most associated with this view, and his contention is:

"The panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half century."

The money spent on saving the panda, this argument goes, could and should be spent elsewhere.

The dinner party went quiet, for a moment.

My immediate thought was:-

But pandas are cute.

I then thought:-

No, unleashing "survival of the fittest" in respect of these cute pandas is just as callous as Lady Thatcher saying that one could not buck the market.

And then I realised that this - intellectually - was a very tough call.

For there is a clash between, on one hand, the elevated but very human notions of conservation and aesthetics; and, on the other, the harsh and unforgiving approaches of cost-benefit analyses and evolutionary biology.

It is not an easy issue to resolve.

But should pandas really be left to die out?


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


The Heresiarch said...

I think the answer depends on the answer to a further question: "What are pandas for"?

Spending money to save pandas is only justified if people want pandas to be saved. It's human money, after all. The ecosystem isn't at stake. Saving the panda is good because they're cute, or at least people think they're cute (I've never met one; perhaps they're really quite unpleasant if you get to know them.)

For there is a clash between, on one hand, the elevated but very human notions of conservation and aesthetics; and, on the other, the harsh and unforgiving approaches of cost-benefit analysis and evolutionary biology.

Not really, no. Evolutionary biology is irrelevant here. It has no morality. Agree that left to itself the panda would go extinct - all that means is that it would take money to save it. Is it worth spending the money? Yes, because they're cute. That's the only reason, but it's a perfectly good reason. One of the benefits of being human is that we can do superfluous things, like buying bunches of flowers. Saving the panda is like buying the human race - ourselves - a big bunch of flowers. It has no other purpose.

alexblac said...

Would it even be endangered if it wasn't for human activity though?

Andy Russell said...

@The Heresiarch
...left to itself the panda would go extinct...

I suppose you're right but humans have intervened in the past to remove a lot of the Panda's habitat and poachers have had a big impact on their numbers. Can we now justify leaving them alone as if they are fighting against natural factors alone?

[hmm, it seems alexblac made this point first!]

Stunt_girl said...

An animal is so adapted to its habitat - easy food, lack of predators - that it loses its evolutionary edge and is defenceless against man. And therefore it's the pandas' own fault that they are crap and dying out... is that the argument?

If Dodos were still around, would Packham say the same about them?

This strikes me as an argument from the wrong perspective - it isn't about using money to prop up their numbers so much as trying to prevent their habitat being destroyed and them being hunted for their 'medical value'. That's worthwhile for any endangered species.

Ed Yong said...

Surely the key question to be answered is "What proportion of money raised for conservation because of pandas actually goes to pandas?"

Put it another way - does panda-centric conservation effectively subsidise conservation efforts aimed at less charismatic but more ecologically important species?

I suspect the answer is yes. As I understand it, the WWF's strategy is to fundraise off the back of charismatic animals so that it can do broader conservation work.

Cronan said...

I think they should be left to die out, but I'd like to get a chance to eat one first. With a nice bamboo leaf salad. Pfpfpfpfpfpfp!

William Satire (Jr.) said...

The answer is simple to me. Are humans responsible for them being endangered?

If yes, then we should make a concerted effort to stop it.

If no, then we should help out but not at a huge expense

brian t said...

"Are humans responsible for them being endangered?"

It looks to me as if the pandas have been endangered by the slightest contact with humans. But, I have to ask, are humans the only species that can endanger another species?

Most species seem to have some ability to adapt to changing circumstances, while pandas appear to have little or no such ability. The species that endangered them could just as easily be something non-human, such as tigers or foxes. This may have been the case, for all we know, and it doesn't seem logical to place all the blame and responsibility on human shoulders.

Stephen Moss said...

The history of life on earth is punctuated by countless extinctions, so should we be concerned by the possible extinction of the panda? The answer is yes, and the reason is context.

The panda is one of many species threatened with extinction because of human activity. We could easily let slip the orang utan, tiger, white rhino too, plus thousands of less familiar animals and plants, and others that may become extinct before we’ve even discovered them. Eventually ecosystems and food chains break down, and that’s when humans too become endangered – perhaps we’re less bothered by the prospect of our own demise than that of the panda.

And I find the cost-benefit argument to be slightly spurious. All we need do is leave a few thousand square kilometres untouched (be it for the panda, orang-utan, tiger etc) and let the beasts get on with it. Doing nothing surely costs nothing?

Botogol said...

evolution isn't a factor here:
pandas are dying out because people are destroying their habitat. We are not 'letting them die out' we are 'causing them to die out'

In general it seems a good starting point to try to preserve as many species as possible. You can't bring them back.

But clearly there's a limit to bow much we can expend to save each of countless species.

It's truly a problem for our age.

Alice said...

The panda is a true icon, and, sadly, icons should not be underestimated.

To do a really good job of saving the panda, that really means saving its habitat - as many sensible people have already pointed out. And in doing that, you get to save an awful lot more creatures as well.

Take parrots: a sign of a healthy rainforest is that it's populated by parrots. You can breed creatures until you're blue in the face, but they won't thrive if their habitat is not thriving. But no sensible habitat consists of a monoculture of animals or plants - but a huge biodiversity.

So no, pandas shouldn't just be bred for the sake of it. But on the other hand, yes, their homes should be saved, because that's going to benefit a lot more creatures. If, to raise money, that effort has to be publicly called "saving the panda" when it's a lot more about "saving the bamboo, bugs, worms, bacteria etc", well, so be it.

But I have to admit I can't be entirely partial about this. Pandas are cute and I have a silly soft spot. And yet, isn't having a silly soft spot a lot better than being callous and greedy?

HDB said...

Considering the money we waste on unwinnable wars and new cars? Pandas: not a huge priority as far as spending cuts go.

There's no "what are pandas for" as far as I'm concerned; I lean towards the idea that animals with nervous systems similar enough to mine (yes, arbitrary speciesism) are ends in themselves.

That said, in practical terms I'm with William Satire Jr. as far as "if we caused the mess, we have (extra) responsibility".

LR said...

I think the argument seems to be more along the lines of "are we spending too much money on pandas?" As a species they seem very determined to go extinct and I think it is a cost-benefit problem: if the £1m breeding program for pandas doesn't save any pandas but a £1m nature reserve could have saved something else I think we might be wasting money.

It seems callous and I think we should try and save pandas but I think it can be easy to put lots of effort into saving a few species because they're cute etc when that money could be used to save a lot of 'lesser' species.

a final point: @Stephen Moss it would be lovely if setting up a nature reserve didn't cost anything once the land was bought but you then need to protect it against poachers, make sure that its maintained ie if a stream runs through the reserve is the stream clean? so while setting aside land should be free it isn't, especially when someone wants to build on it..

JuliaM said...

"Would it even be endangered if it wasn't for human activity though?"

Yes, human activity (surprisingly) doesn't have a lot to do with it. Even if their habitat wasn't destroyed by man, they'd struggle to survive.

The panda is a loser in the long term evoluntionary race, having evolved itself into a tiny ecological niche, dependent of a few food items, with exceptionally low breeding drive.

The cheetah will be next - not enough genetic diversity.

Will said...

In the most recent episode of QI (link below) Stephen Fry refuted the claim so eloquently put by Ricky Gervais that 'They're not meeting us half way. They're not shagging', claiming that recent developments in the understanding of pandas' mating rituals shows that it is *our* inability to recreate their natural habitat that is stopping them from reproducing.

More importantly, once we make the decision to let them die out, there's no going back.

Alex Gough said...

Pandas have, cleverly, evolved to fill the niche of charasmatic megafauna. They sit next to lions, tigers and polar bears in that happy group of animals that can access funding for survival that mere nemotodes, bivalves or even obscure medium sized lizards cannot. When we think about saving the cuddly panda, we're not engaging in a cost-benefit analysis between them and all other creatures, but a war for the three-pounds-a-month-will-save adverts in between rounds of Countdown. They're up there with earthquake survivors, donkey sancturies and abused children.

MySickBones said...

Surely the panda's lack of sexual activity was an inspiration for Mao's one child policy. Without the panda to inspire them don't we run the risk that the Chinese might look toward the rabbit for new inspiration? Sorry could't resist that one. On a more serious note,the Save the Panda campaign epitomises the "Save the Pretty Ones" attitude toward conservation held by so many caring people. If only people, in general, were as concerned about the plight of the bee. The debate fundamentally is, like most things, a debate about costs and benefits. Do the benefits of saving the panda outweigh the costs of doing so. Pretty as they are I don't think that they do. Sad as it is, it's probably best that the panda go the way of the Dodo and that we, as a species, concentrate our efforts on the survival of the World's Eco-system as a whole and identify those in it whose preservation is essential to the survival of all.

garic said...

There's a very similar debate with regard to languages. Just like biological species, languages are dying at an alarming rate, and the arguments for spending money and time on preventing this are exactly the same as the ones for preventing the extinction of animals.

I've heard the arguments for supporting minority languages often summed up, disparagingly, as "the panda argument".

Perceval said...

I agree with the line of argument of Ed Yong and others - when we try to preserve the panda in the wild, we're effectively striving to preserve a whole ecosystem that is home to many other plants and animals that are not as cute and cuddly.

AFAIK, most breeding programmes in zoos are intended to produce animals that can then be moved
back into the wild - don't know to what extent this is true for pandas.

Nick Sharratt said...

The way I see it we are allowing survival of the adequate (I think fittest is a misleaing term) when Saving pandas, it's just that they rely on their cuteness now to hang on in there.

Any animal which has evolved to look cute enough will inspire human efforts to try to ensure they survive. Other organisms have bought into the same gravy train by being useful (think corn, wheat etc which are just very useful grass - sort of), others have gone down the indispensible route (bees, worms etc) but cute seems an adequate strategy too, at least for now.

Question is, which things will continue to survive or thrive once our own gravy train hits the buffers, and will we be able to hitch a ride on their coat tails then? :)

irlbinky said...

hmmm a tough choice.

Does anyone disagree that pandas are cute? Probably not.

Does anyone disagree that the habbitat of the panda is/was destroyed by man? Probably not.

Now this is the tricky question, how much is too much to spend on trying to save a single species? If the money spent on trying to save the panda could garuntee 2 or 3 other 'cute' species would it be better or easier to stop saving the panda? Now the flip side of the coin - how many people give to the WWF because of the panda? If a decision to let the panda die out in favour of trying to save other species will people stop donating?

Giving an answer I would favour to keep funding current projects with a set of goals (ie a number of new panda cubs to be born by a certain period). Any project that doesn't meet the goal I would cut that project and redirect it to a new one.

Any new project to save the panda would be giving a level start with other projects to save other species.

Given that decision would I fell happy about possibly/probably killing off the panda - no. Would i then move on to the next highest funded animal and possibly kill that one off - I honestly don't know.

guthrie said...

Stungirl - every creature on the planet larger than a mouse (And many smaller, e.g. smallpox) has surely lots its evolutionary edge (Whatever that is, I don't recall reading about it before) against mankind, so I wonder who comes up with that sort of argument.

I am pretty sure that preserving the Panda's will also do something to preserve the ecosystem they live in against encroaching farmland, which is therefore definitely a good thing.

William Satire sums up part of it -we are responsible, so we should try and do something about it as much as is sensible/ possible/ agreeable - pick as you wish.

Julia M - calling it the evolutionary race is somewhat tricky, seeing as it implies a process with a begining and end and a first, second and third or so on, which is rather anthropomorphising the whole process, surely?

Alice said...

Sorry, Jack, I can't resist, but what if you attempt to go to a dinner party you're not allowed to go to? Is that illegal? :-D

Seriously, to me it seems that trying to save 1 species is like trying to save 1 flower on several multiflowered plants. To achieve any real lasting success, you might just as well look after the whole flowerbed!

Alex said...

"Most species seem to have some ability to adapt to changing circumstances"

This is not true. 99% of all species that have ever existed are extinct.

Besides, considering that Homo sapiens is the most intelligent species that has ever existed, and one of the most ecologically intensive, I should think that Pandas ability to adapt is hardly their fault. Many many species have done the same when coming into contact with humans. This is the Holocene extinction, and some scientists are calling this the sixth great extinction (the last being 65 mya).

Tom Morris said...

Err, whatever is this nonsense about pandas not having adapted to their environment? They've adapted perfectly to an environment where people rightly feel guilty about causing the unnecessary death of cute furry animals.

In Selfish-Gene-speak: what a wonderful thing for the panda genes to have gotten themselves into the WWF logos!

Tom Morris said...

Oh, and I'll apologise in advance for being the long-winded philosopher, but I found that Chris Belshaw's Open University podcast on environmental value to be a very useful introduction to how we think about environmental problems.

Listen to the one titled "Environmental Values".

Martin Budden said...

The argument to let pandas die out is a utilitarian one. Actually there are several utilitarian arguments rolled up in this question:

There is the argument against conservation itself, namely that the greater good would be better served by doing less (or no) conservation.

Or if you accept that conservation serves the greater good, there is the argument that 'more' conservation could be done if the money spent saving pandas was used to conserve other species or habitats. This can be countered by the fact that because of the great symbolism of the panda, money or time spent saving the panda is 'geared' and so disproportionally benefits the greater good.

I don't think there is a non-utilitiarian argument for allowing the panda to die out.

Now I agree that deciding if you agree with utilitarianism is a tough call. This is something I have long debated, and I have decided I do not accept the utilitarian view. If you have made this decision, answering the question 'Should be allow the panda to die out?' is easy. The answer is no.

Gareth Rees said...

The argument that "the money spent on saving the panda could and should be spent elsewhere" is an argument for doing nothing.

It dangles the assumption that there's a fixed pool of money for conservation and what we need is some kind of cost-benefit analysis on how best to spend it.

But that assumption's not true at all: if panda conservation is de-funded, then there's no guarantee that the budget or charitable contributions will be forthcoming for some other project. Especially if the other project is less cute, less publicity-friendly.

Ecological conservation is a field in which projects don't stand alone. To protect the pandas, you need to preserve large tracts of wild bamboo forest. But such reserves, if successful, protect many other, less glamorous, species.

Cosmic Navel Lint said...

His views are not what you might call 'universally loved' amongst Guardianistas, but Jeremy Clarkson conjectured an answer, by way of irony, to this very question years ago - and not just about Pandas, either.

If you want to protect any given species (or at least not allow, through illegal poaching, its extinction), then start putting it on menus: once those seeking to make a buck (from what, they don't care), you'll be surprised just how quickly money is thrown at the problem and its numbers increase as it becomes a supply and demand commodity.

OK, it's perhaps not what Maynard Keynes had in mind when drawing up his economic theories, but you get the drift...

Tom Morris said...

As per Clarkson's solution, I reckon there is a real shortage of middle aged motoring correspondents. I declare fair game on them. The market'll sort it all out, right?

James Cranch said...

I haven't quite understood your attitude towards these two concepts, "international law" and "human rights".

You argue that the latter is universal, and moreover exists independently of our modest ability to enforce it universally.

However you argue that the former is a pragmatic construct: if we can't enforce it, it doesn't really exist.

Could you sketch the distinction in nature between these two concepts, which causes you to view them so differently?

Elrik Merlin said...

When I was attending the Climate Convention talks in the run-up to the Earth Summit, however many decades ago that was, a WWF representative remarked to me that it was impossible to raise money to work against anthropogenic climate change, and pretty difficult to raise it to protect vanishing habitats (which were often vanishing as a result of both direct human activity and increasingly AGW). As a result you needed to pick out the charismatic megafauna most affected by these factors and raise money to save them.

That doesn't mean to say that you're diverting Panda money, say, for work on some other issue, because you reference issues that affect Pandas (and probably a bunch of other entities too).

Thus I would argue that whether or not saving Pandas is a good idea, referencing them (and/or other large, popular animals) in fundraising for appropriate causes is effective and legitimate. Well, at least it was 20 years ago.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Keeping Pandas in captivity seems a bit cruel and since they are not a species of great interest to science nor are they required to maintain their ecosystem then all they have going for the is their charisma.

Its illogical and irrational to spend disproportionate resources on the Giant Panda if that means other species that are more important slip away as a result. Ideally we would preserve sufficient habitat to let the Pandas make their own way but that doesn't seem to be an option.

Pacal said...

You all seem to forget that the Giant Panda is worth mega tourist dollars. so the bottom line is that there is a powerful market interest in saving the Giant Panda.

So I suspect the Chinese at least will continue to divert resources to preserve and save them.