Are Fluffy Pandas Worth Saving or Should We Let Them Go?

These difficult questions raise complex issues some of which many like to avoid

Posted Feb 24, 2013

In a previous essay I wrote about the plight of captive-bred pandas (Pandas: Do We Really Need Another Cute "Ambassador"?) and the recent birth and almost immediate death of one of these charismatic mammals at the National Zoo in Washington, D. C. Giant pandas surely are cute and pull at people's heartstrings - this video of a baby panda sneezing has more than 155 million hits - but my impression is that most people who find these endangered mammals to be seductively alluring do not know what sort of life they are destined to live.

This past Friday (22 February) giant pandas once again appeared in major news media, this time on Rock Center on NBC news. The show was called "Are giant pandas worth saving?" and some summary text and the show can be seen here

I call your attention to this show and the interviews Kate Snow held with Dr. Sarah Bexell and British wildlife expert, Chris Packham (see also) because I found it to be very well balanced and made me revisit some of the material about which I'd previously written. Dr. Bexell is the Director of Conservation education at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and co-author with Professor Zhang Zhihe, director of the same facility, of the very important book Giant Pandas: Born Survivors.

We need to make tough choices that may work against a "fluffy, cuddly bear"

Dr. Bexell and her colleagues see the panda as an iconic animal worth saving although she and others know there are very difficult, challenging, and frustrating questions that need to be addressed, whereas Mr. Packham does not. He notes, “I think we have to make tough choices... I think that, ultimately, we have to be pragmatic as well as sentimental. You know, we can't allow our heart to rule our conservation head… And if we channel this much into just one species, then many others, which could be far better helped, many other not just species, but communities and ecosystems, could be better protected at the expense of one fluffy, cuddly bear." Similarly, noted conservation psychologist and Psychology Today blogger Susan Clayton writes, "So, I like pandas as much as anyone. But at some level I can’t help wondering what we’re saving them for. Just as tourist attractions?"

Dr. Bexell notes, “I think pandas are symbolic. We all love them. We all want to share the earth with them. And if we truly cannot save space for giant pandas, what does that say about us as a species? And how could we ever have hope for any of the others if we can't save the one that we profess to love the most?”

Who lives, who dies, and why: Should we save ants rather than pandas?

The captive breeding of animals who will spend the rest of their lives in cages as supposed "ambassadors of their species" or purportedly to raise money for conservation projects (though some might generate some funds) raises many questions and I come down more on the side of Mr. Packham. We need to make tough choices and might as well face up to the task at hand. I don't see captive breeding and keeping animals in cages as a way to rewild our hearts or to rewild other animals. 

I know we are all attracted to cute, fluffy, and cuddly, but I am much swayed by a quotation from one of the world's foremost conservation biologist, Harvard University's Edward O. Wilson. Professor Wilson wrote, "If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos."

In an essay called "Another inconvenient truth", Elizabeth Bennett, of the prestigious Wildlife Conservation Society, points out that we're really not very good about protecting charismatic species so there's not that much hope for those who aren't eye-catching. And, more and more researchers are taking the view that we can't fix everything and that we need to make choices about who to save and who to let go. In an internet survey conducted by the University of York's Murray Rudd of 583 conservation scientists questioned 60 percent agreed that criteria should be established for deciding which species to abandon in order to focus on saving others. Ninety-nine percent agreed that a serious loss of biodiversity is "likely, very likely, or virtually certain."

Professor Wilson's vote for the less notable but more ecologically important species always makes me think about the choices we make in conservation projects. I really believe that even when people differ most are truly committed to making the world the best place it can be at a time when we are recklessly and selfishly destroying our magnificent planet at an unprecedented rate, wantonly and impetuously decimating wondrous and magical webs of nature, and heartlessly and mercilessly killing countless animal beings of myriad species. The biodiversity crisis, that is a result of our over-producing, over-consuming, and incredibly invasive ways, not only threatens other species but also negatively effects us all. 

We can't save all species and in the future we'll have to make some tough choices. Informed discussions are sorely needed and ignoring the critical and difficult questions that arise will get us nowhere and indeed, will work against us, other species, and the integrity of ecosystems we are trying to save.


Bennett, Elizabeth L. 2011. Another inconvenient truth: The failure of enforcement systems to save charismatic species. Oryx 45, 476-479. (see also

Rudd, Murray A. 2011. Scientists’ opinions on the global status and management of biological diversity. Conservation Biology 25, 1165-1175. (see also

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