Way back when, longer than I care to remember but probably around 1985 or so, I spent a week working as a volunteer research assistant at the famed BBC Natural History Unit. Even at 17, I was pretty sure I wanted to be in some way involved with writing and/or broadcasting about the natural world, and as the Natural History Unit was but a 30 minute train ride from my home, I bombarded everyone there with letters until eventually a producer called Mike Beynon relented and allowed me to help out with – i.e. not get in the way of – production of the first season of a program called The Really Wild Show.
One of the hosts of that first season was a young naturalist called Chris Packham, who is now a slightly less young naturalist who continues to host wildlife programs in Britain, and who recently embroiled himself in something of a controversy when he was quoted in the country’s TV listings magazine Radio Times as saying that humanity should allow giant pandas to die out.
His argument was that milions of dollars are poured into the conservation of just one species, when the same amount of money applied to protecting an expanse of tropical rainforest could save many, many more.
True enough. In fact, shortly after my brief spell on The Really Wild Show, I wrote a chapter for a book in which I made a similar case, as a way of arguing against the eulogization of captive breeding in zoos as a major contributor to conservation. But, as one of the critics of my argument pointed out, rightly or wrongly, not all species are regarded as equal. By and large, society places greater value on preserving pandas and polar bears than, say, dung beetles. Additionally, it doesn’t follow that the milions of yuan spent by the Chinese government on giant panda conservation would, if not spent on pandas, be automatically reassigned to protecting the Amazon rather than ingenious new ways to block Internet access or suppress pro-democracy activists.
What was particularly irksome, though, was Packham’s rationale for opposing panda conservation efforts. “Here’s a species that, of its own accord, has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” he said. “It’s not a strong species.” OK, where to beguin with that one? Let’s cast aside the image of a cadre of proto-pandas electing to head off down a road with a “No Through Way” sign, even as God told them that “I really wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
The whole idea that giant pandas are an evolutionary failure is so ingrained that religious fundamentalists exponents of Intelligent Design offer the species as evidence for Creation, because how else could it possibly have emerged and survived?
But the notion is based on a misunderstanding of pandas and, indeed, evolution. As this article clearly explains, the conventional wisdom that giant pandas are utterly incompetent lovers is incorrect, and based on observations of captive, not wild, animals.
And then there’s the diet, the argument that pandas are poorly physically adapted to the bamboo on which they feast, and that they are somehow being deliberately obstinate in persisting in eating that bamboo even as its extent is being greatly reduced. “I know that man has devastated the traditional happy hunting grounds of the panda and pandas are also the victims of poachers and for that we humans must be culpable, but if your traditional bamboo source is no longer available, wouldn’t you branch out?” asks Kerre Woodham rhetorically in the New Zealand Herald. Well, no, actually.
Giant padas eat bamboo because it works for them. Evolution is about exploiting niches, and this was one niche that was wide open, because there was no competition. Not all species are infinitely adaptable; specialization is common. Fish can’t survive out of water; blue whales only eat krill; polar bears need sea ice: Should we let them die out too?
The biggest take-home lesson of this, to my mind, is not that there is a groundswell of anti-panda sentiment ready to erupt in town hall meetings and tea bag parties. It’s that, 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species, evolutionary ignorance is widespread. Even among those who should know better.