Juliet Dunlop: Plenty to ponder on pandas

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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In the end the news from Edinburgh Zoo wasn’t good. After a long, complicated and at times over-hyped pregnancy, Britain’s only female giant panda had lost her cub. If the announcement wasn’t exactly a surprise, it was still a blow.

Until a few days ago the signs had been positive. We were told Tian Tian was “nesting”; that she was moody, withdrawn and had started producing baby milk. There was always the risk of a phantom pregnancy (we’d been warned) but keepers were hopeful; a nursery had been set-up with two incubators in the event it was twins and an expert flown in from China as a precaution.

All Tian Tian had to do was deliver the goods. That of course didn’t happen – panda pregnancies are notoriously tricky – but had she produced a cub, or better still cubs, that is exactly what they would have been: prized goods; fluffy balls of fur representing hard cash and a guaranteed income stream for the next three years. And if we are completely honest, that is the reason pandas – along with other so-called big ticket animals like tigers – are kept in zoos. Yes, they do valuable work, but they are still attractions which must pay their way. Their business is as much about self-preservation as it is conservation, and pandas are star attractions.

But if theses shy and solitary animals make money, they also cost a great deal. Millions is poured into panda conservation each year and for very little return. There is an argument which says they’re no longer worth the time and the trouble. Wildlife presenter Chris Packham belongs to a growing minority who believe the species isn’t strong enough to survive on its own and should simply be left to die out. It’s a harsh and unpopular view. “I reckon we should pull the plug” is how he puts it. “Let them go with a degree of dignity.”

That is unlikely to happen. But there is a strong – if unpalatable – case to be made which says that he is right; that the panda is a lost cause. The difficulties experienced by Edinburgh only seem to underline that. As we’ve seen, breeding pandas in captivity is a hit-and-miss affair: females can only get pregnant during a 36-hour window and Tian Tian’s mate – despite his best attempts – just wasn’t up to the job. Success is only ever limited – even in China – and as the zoo has discovered, artificial insemination isn’t necessarily the answer. Sadly, in the wild, pandas don’t fare much better. Deforestation has largely destroyed their natural habitat and that cannot be reversed.

Yet the thought of giving up on the panda, an animal which you could argue has almost given up on itself – there are only 1,600 left in the wild and far fewer in captivity – is pretty much unthinkable. It is almost as if they’re living, breathing teddy bears. They’re not, of course, but they are big, cute, endearingly inactive and incredibly rare. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – the charity set-up to protect our most vulnerable animals and which uses the panda as its symbol – certainly believes they’re worth saving.

If that flies in the face of logic, it’s because WWF recognises that “conservation triage” – only focussing resources on animals that can be realistically saved – is a step too far for most people. We’re too sentimental and far too hypocritical for that. The fact is we care more about animals we find attractive. The Yangtze River dolphin is a classic example of this double standard; in the looks department, it just wasn’t cute enough to save. Pandas, on the other hand, sell T-shirts and tickets. Just ask Edinburgh Zoo.

It’s almost two years since Tian Tian and Yang Guang arrived in a whirlwind of merchandising and strict demands. They’ve already been credited with reviving fortunes at the zoo, despite the £600,000 a year it costs to rent the pair. If the costs begin to outweigh the benefits, it may have to reconsider its position – other zoos have returned their pandas – but for now, it must be hoping it’s a case of third time lucky. Whatever your views about the viability of giant pandas and whether they even have a future, a cub would have been box-office gold.