The Giant Panda: Better Extinct Than Vulnerable?

The giant panda is an emblem for conservation globally, but why? Well, some say that they receive such widespread attention primarily because they have the ultimate cute factor; they’re cuddly and lovable, easily attracting the attention and sympathy of people all over the world. They make us more likely to dip into our back pockets and put some spare change in the charity bucket. This is quite hard to deny considering how adorable giant pandas are - let’s face it, we’ve all watched a video of baby pandas in captive breeding programmes having the time of their lives going down slides, consequently making us  question why we’re at university and not working in a panda nursery somewhere else.

The large-scale funding that has gone into conserving this species worldwide has been responsible for the giant panda’s conservation status on the IUCN red list dropping from endangered to vulnerable, which is great news for the species! However, some people believe that the time, effort and (most critically) money that has gone into giant panda conservation alone could have been better spent on conserving species that have more value ecologically. A recent study that evidenced some of the important roles giant pandas play ecologically, and concluded that other species would be negatively affected by their loss, refuted this notion - the WWF summarises the giant panda's importance regarding their natural habitat here. However, could they have had a greater conservation benefit if they were to go extinct? It is possible, yes. 

Many of the reasons that cause a species to be threatened - and in need of conservation efforts - are related to humans, the detrimental impacts of our individual consumption habits, and our enormous population growth. But, there are things that we can do as individuals, that governments can do by implementing laws, that industries - those responsible for widespread environmental degradation - can do to reduce the threats to species and so reduce the burden on conservation efforts. Something needs to happen to spark these changes, rather than us just talking about them, and that event inspiring such change could possibly be the extinction of the giant panda.

As the global emblem for conservation, the giant panda represents the need for conservation and so, both potentially and paradoxically, it is diminishing conservation concerns. As it goes from being categorised as 'endangered' to 'vulnerable', this shift may function to also diminish the global population's attention to the need for conservation and environmental protection. After all, if one of the species at risk of extinction is now not at risk, things can’t be all that bad, right? Wrong. 

Clearly on a local scale the extinction of the giant panda would be a devastating loss for the species, and for the other species that rely on the roles it plays in the ecosystem. However, for global conservation awareness it could be of benefit. Often we think of extinct animals as animals that have been gone for a long time - like the woolly mammoth - but, if a real-time extinction of such a loved and high-profile species doesn’t make individuals, governments and industries think twice about their environmentally destructive actions, I’m not quite sure what will.