Could and Should Pandas Survive?

A heap of human animosity has amounted towards a certain endangered animal. While these particular mammals may appear to the human eyes as cute, cuddly, and by all means necessary to prevent from going extinct, a number of critics see the giant panda as a giant waste of time and resources.

Only a few hundred pandas currently exist in captivity, the latest additions being a pair of cubs born at the Toronto Zoo just last Tuesday. An estimated 1,864 pandas are left living in the wild, as reported last year by the World Wildlife Foundation. This scant figure was calculated after teams of researchers took the time to trek through Chinese bamboo forests, locate piles of pandas feces, dig around the matter to find undigested bamboo, and investigate these excreted specimens for traces of individual bears’ bite marks (which are unique like human fingerprints).

The population of wild pandas is not the only finding that researchers have derived based on this black-and-white beast’s digestive patterns. Though the panda’s gastronomical tract resembles that of a carnivore’s, these bears gave up on meat to instead eat fibrous bamboo, almost exclusively, 2 million years ago. Most of the modern panda’s time is spent lazing. While the bears may get up intermittently to reach for bamboo stalks, out of the 30 pounds of plants they usually consume daily, only about 17 percent of the mass is actually digested. It was suggested that their low energy expenditure relates to their eating habits; their thyroid levels are “a fraction of the mammalian norm,” as the researchers wrote.

Various journalists have digested this data themselves in order to report that the pandas are “exceptionally lazy” and that their diet plays a large evolutionary role in their listlessness.

Food is necessary for a mammalian species’ survival, as is reproduction. In terms of panda sex, inbreeding is regarded as a problem for wild ones, and it’s no secret that zoos all over the world face challenges in getting their pandas to successfully mate.

The odds are tough: pandas are notably picky with partners, plus females are only fertile for about two or three days out of the entire year. Efforts of providing Viagra and screening panda pornography have been exercised at zoos, the latter of which actually proved successful in charging a captive couple back in 2013. Several zoos have also taken to practicing artificial insemination.

But beyond the issue of conception itself, panda pregnancies are notoriously problematic, with females sometimes exhibiting “psuedopregnancies”–when their bodies and behaviors show signs of gestation, yet no fetus is actually developing.

The price tag of panda survival adds more fuel to the fire; they are the most expensive zoo animal to maintain. As of 2014, it cost the Toronto Zoo $2.6 million to keep two of them annually, and according to The Guardian, zoos in San Diego, Memphis, Washington, “are said to have spent $33 [million] more on pandas from 2000-03 than they received from showing them.”

There are plenty of anti-panda articles and blogs posted online, as well as arguments typed out into Reddit forums. British author and wildlife activist Chris Packham remarked that the bear has “gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” and that “the panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half-century.” Since he stated these strong opinions in 2008, BTR tried to reach out to Packham’s press office to see if he still held the same views, but to no avail.

There are some retorts to the said arguments. Pro-panda science journalist Henry Nicholls contends that the big bears are largely misunderstood and that they do not deserve to go extinct. He wrote in a BBC article that it’s important for people to differentiate between captive and wild pandas.

For one, panda sex in the open bamboo forests is far different from that in insular environments where they’re presented with porn. When George Schaller observed pandas in the wilderness, he witnessed a large male panda mating with a tracked female named Zhen Zhen “at least 48 times, roughly once every three minutes.” Friskiness was also found; fornication between three or more pandas ended up being “pretty standard for giant pandas in the wild.”

Nicholls also made sure to note that we should get over the misconception that pandas are cute and cuddly, referencing a case several years ago in which a drunken man hopped over the fence at the Beijing Zoo. The bear brutally injured his calf as a reaction to the intrusion.

Pandas are long known as treasured symbols of China. Moreover, people are partially to blame for pandas’ endangerment; the creatures’ mountainous forest habitats have been disappearing largely due to development and the spread of human population. Climate change also threatens the future of these bamboo forests.

According to Endangered Earth, over 41,000 species of plants and animals are on the IUCN list, which accounts for “one in four mammals, one in eight birds, [and] one third of all amphibians.” Pandas are just one of many animals, and while they may not have survived for so long if it weren’t for their appealing appearance, perhaps they would not be so endangered had it not been for the faults of human civilization. Determining whether pandas could and should continue to thrive here on Earth is a layered issue continuously driven by a wide range of scientific facts and personal opinions.

Featured photo courtesy of fortherock.