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Friday
Sep112015

Pandering to Pandas: How will we Combat Extinction?

Pandas. What are they good for? Large, lethargic creatures who lie around eating nothing but bamboo all day and have no interest in sex. It’s like they’re asking to become extinct. So should we just sit back and let it happen? Or does the survival of the panda represent something important about the larger issue of environmental conservation?

With an estimated three species going extinct every hour, it seems ridiculous to focus so many funds and resources on one black and white bear with a death wish. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that despite the panda being used to grab attention, the money raised by charities such as the WWF is actually used on preserving the wider ecology: in this instance, the bamboo forest in China. This in turn helps preserve a number of other species—dwarf blue sheep, takin, and snub-nosed monkeys, to name a few.

flickr | Marc BlickleThis leads to one of the most important principles of conservation nowadays: save the jungle, and you’ll save the orang-utan. There’s overwhelming evidence that the encroachment of mankind on uncultivated land is wreaking potentially irreversible damage on the organisms that live there. The trouble is, a picture of a baby orang-utan wearing a nappy is far more likely to raise money than the rather unremarkable plants and fruit that make up their diet.

Alongside this, by focusing on the big money animals, are we missing out on areas where we can get the most biology for our buck? Sponge reefs provide a habitat for fish and invertebrates, possibly serving as a nursery area for these animals and others for whom the wider surrounding habitat proves too harsh. They are at risk of damage by fishing, as well as offshore oil and gas exploration, but it’s difficult to secure funding for the protection of something most people associate with their bathroom rituals. Given the option, more people will choose to donate to a campaign to save the snow leopard than their apparently desolate habitat, despite it also being home to a unique variety of exceptionally hardy plants, birds and other mammals.

flickr | NOAA National Ocean ServiceWhich leads back to the question of the panda. The success of a conservation project is determined all too often by how we feel about a particular species. Despite the overwhelming number of endangered and threatened species, very few have the emotive pull of the panda, or leopard: children don’t beg for a stuffed toy that looks like the blob fish. These so-called ‘charismatic megafauna’—the celebrities of the animal kingdom—draw a large audience, whose money can then be used on the less sexy areas of conservation.

flickr | David AmslerAnd then there's the simple logistics of using, say, elephants or polar bears as poster boys. Picking an animal at the top of the food chain automatically means saving a larger area of land in order to preserve their hunting ground. Such attempts often have unforeseen positive side effects. For example, William Ripple and Robert Beschta have shown that the reintroduction of grey wolves at Yellowstone national park helped to regenerate the cottonwood and willow populations, as the wolves preyed on deer and elk who had been overeating the plants. This demonstrates a practice known as ‘the ecosystem method’ of conservation, whereby species-rich regions are protected, rather than a single organism.  Combining this practice with the charismatic appeal of the celebrity animal that lives there offers possibly the best chance to have your conservation cake and eat it.

So perhaps it’s better to reverse the sentence above: save an orang-utan, and you’ll save the jungle. By saving the panda, perhaps we can save the world.

By Ellie HughesOnline Journalism Intern

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