Pandas: Available in black, white, and shades of grey

Low cal diet: A curious taste for bamboo

BlogTO recently posted about the two cute pandas coming to the Toronto zoo on a five-year loan (Wouldn’t it be better if the pandas just stayed home?). The gist of that post was: (1) why spend all that money on pandas when there are so many other native species that could use the funding; (2) some feel the zoo is overly optimistic about how much revenue the pandas will bring in given their ~$1 million/yr price tag (never mind the $200K price tag for imported bamboo!) and (3) to recognize international goodwill between China and other countries via live bear currency seems a little strange (a.k.a. the bizarre emergence of panda diplomacy).

In this complicated world, it seems like the more one looks into something, the less black and white it is – unlike our furry subject, ironically.  Consider a few brief aspects (to do with pandas, less so with international diplomacy):

  • So few:  At one point the panda came very close to extinction and the species is still one of the rarest on the planet. I had no idea that there are only an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 pandas left in the wild, and about 240 to 333 in zoos (estimates vary depending on source).  That’s not a lot of pandas is it?
  • Two day window: Despite the huge difficulty in mating pandas in captivity as well as in the wild (the female is only in estrous for two days a year), zoos have been successful in increasing the population of captive pandas from 150 to 333.
  • Panda “loans” can help:  Loans of giant pandas between China and other countries — panda diplomacy — costs hosting countries up to $1M U.S.D. a year.  In some cases a portion of these loan fees are directed to conservation efforts for the giant panda and its habitat.
  • Who decides?  Some conservationists have controversially expressed that the giant panda is too expensive to save and that funds would be better spent on protecting “less expensive” animals and their habitat.   Giant pandas are considered unlikely to thrive in the wild due to habitat decline and their proclivity for massive amounts of low-calorie bamboo. Arguments for concentrating on our own backyard (i.e. own local species and habitat) are convincing.
  • Someone’s got to lead the charge:  Yet, others argue that the panda is a keystone species – and, as a flagship icon of wildlife conservation – does enormous amounts for the protection of habitat and other less known species that similarly depend on this habitat, as well as the conservation movement in general.

And there’s a lot more where that came from. It’s a complicated world out there, and it’s sure not getting any simpler.  However, there is one aspect in which many agree, and that is that the future chances of these animals flourishing in the wild is slim (for example, in the wild breeding pandas need about 30km2 of land to support them – but most populations are now isolated in narrow 1.2km-wide fragments).  This means that regardless of how well we succeed at captive breeding, without immediate broader scale and significant habitat protection, the only place we’re going to be seeing some of these animals in the future is behind bars – and that goes for a lot more species than just pandas.

At this pace of development, many of our global brethren are purring, whirring, walking, and running full-tilt into an animated parody of Sabre-Tooth Tiger and Woolly Mammoth exhibits…. and no matter what side of the exhibit you’re on there’s something terribly sad about that.

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