Last week, Edinburgh Zoo’s giant pandas, who are, on loan from China failed to mate, despite or perhaps because of much anticipation and interest from the UK’s media. Yang Guang (male) and Tian Tian (female) showed only a passing interest in each other when they were put into the same enclosure, despite the fact that Tian Tian was on heat.
In a strange way, I see the giant panda as a kind of anti-dodo. Whereas dodos seemingly delivered themselves willingly to death and ultimately extinction at the hands of the Portuguese sailors who discovered them on the island of Mauritius in the 17th century, pandas seem to be wilfully resisting all human efforts to save them. Female giant pandas are only on heat for 72 hours a year, while males only have 24 days a year when they are at their peak to reproduce.
In the wild, these normally solitary creatures are sometimes able to meet up at the right time to produce young, but in captivity, it’s even more complicated trying to find a time when both male and female are in the mood for mating.
There are just 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild, living in China’s mountainous bamboo forests. Destruction of their habitat is now their biggest threat, though in the past, pandas were poached as well. And pandas need a lot of bamboo. They have the digestive system of a carnivore, yet for some daft reason, they have chosen to eat a diet almost exclusively based around bamboo, a very tough fibrous plant that’s very hard to digest and has very little nutritional value anyway. That means that each giant panda spends up to 14 hours a day feeding and they can eat up to 38kgs per day of bamboo to stay well fed, which means that the very small panda population of 1,600 individuals could still devour over 22,000 tonnes of bamboo per year, which is almost 14 tonnes per panda!
With all that searching for and devouring of bamboo to do, it’s perhaps not a surprise that having babies seems a low priority to a panda. For years, giant pandas have been a symbol of human conservation efforts and indeed, without human intervention, it does seem that this is a species that might have disappeared already. It’s true that humans caused the giant panda to be endangered in the first place, but now as a species they seem determined to finish off the job themselves.
Captive breeding programmes have sometimes been very successful. The golden lion tamarin, a monkey from the Amazon rainforest, has been brought back from the brink of extinction thanks to a worldwide captive breeding effort made by zoos. But whilst I think it’s worth protecting the giant panda’s habitats for the future in the hopes that enough individuals will decide it’s actually worth keeping their species going, successful captive breeding of pandas seems very expensive, quite unlikely and possibly distracts from the captive breeding of species that can breed more successfully.
There is no doubt that we humans have caused countless species to become extinct in the past and our endeavours across the world still threaten many species whose habitats we have decided are more valuable to us than to them. Whilst there are species like rhinos, elephants and tigers that still need protection from us because people will hunt and kill them to make money there are many more that are in danger simply because we want to turn the place they live into something else.
For example, rainforests in Indonesia are being cut down and burned to make way for palm oil plantations, reducing the habitat available for wonderful creatures like the orang utan. Endangered species should definitely be protected from human activities, whether it’s hunting or habitat destruction. I’m totally supportive of protecting as many species as possible and I would definitely advocate continued protection of panda habitats in the wild. However, I think captive breeding is probably better suited to other species than the panda and that captive breeding efforts should probably be focussed on more enthusiastic species!