If you haven’t been living in a hole these past couple of weeks, you’ll be well aware that the official status of the giant panda has changed from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ – and the world gave a sigh of relief.
For decades researchers and conservationists have worked ceaselessly to mend the damage caused to the species. Hunting and urbanisation has disturbed and destroyed the already fragile natural habitat of the pandas in the bamboo forests of Western China, a country to whom they are considered a dearly beloved national treasure.
However, this incredible feat has brought a critical argument to the surface: is the artificial preservation of the giant panda species really ethical enough to continue? Or – as painful as it is to even think it – is it time to say enough is enough and finally release them back into the wild, and let them die out with dignity? Yes, conservation has had a huge impact on their population and would doubtlessly continue to do so, but some would argue that the lives of these pandas are unnatural, a fabricated dream of a better future which a lot of evidence suggests cannot be. A huge amount of effort is put into monitoring female ovulation (which occurs on average only 2-3 times a year) and then, should the female become pregnant, every step of the way is still riddled with risks – even after the cubs are born they’re dangerously fragile.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the union which announced the upgrade in the status of giant pandas in the first place, are warning that one-third of the panda’s bamboo habitat will be destroyed due to climate change in the next eighty years. As such, pressure has been mounting on conservationists to consider the inevitability of continuing their programmes.
It’s impossible to avoid the truth: the panda is a species that may be too niche to continue living in a habitat that is set to undergo massive changes at the hands of humans. Even TV Naturalist Chris Packham admits that “perhaps the panda was already destined to run out of time”; they are vulnerable to disease, habitat loss and many other mounting problems. Pandas are arguably one of the most adorably hapless species to grace YouTube with their boisterous antics (we’ve all seen Drunk Panda), but the consensus has been rising that perhaps it’s time to give a species with such high odds against their ever thriving in the wild the chance to die out with dignity.
Despite this, it’s a bold assumption to suggest that the panda would just die out without us – after all, we’re the reason they became so critically endangered in the first place.
As the human world gradually encroaches on the wild, the severity of these large-scale disturbances have had a detrimental effect. Ironically, in their desperation to see a beautiful but receding region, tourists are actually contributing to its destruction. And these threats are ever-increasing. If we just left pandas be and agreed not to interfere, but equally not to encroach on their habitat, there’s a likelihood that they will still be there for many years to come, without constant human surveillance.
But no matter what side of the debate you stand on, for the meantime at least, the shutdown of panda conservation is just not likely to happen. It is a cause too close to the hearts of so many, and has too many people willing to fund it to be cut at such a ground-breaking stage in the species’ recovery.
I know I could never make that decision, so can we expect those who have poured their hearts and souls (and their pockets) for decades into this immensely challenging project to do so? It seems that for now at least, the panda is here to stay. After all, could the world really turn their backs on a creature so beautiful, so loveable – so fluffy?
Image: Fernando Revilla