Henry Nicholls: Pandas can survive in captivity – but habitat destruction is their main enemy

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Even if reintroducing pandas to the wild is successful, it is still a distraction. Reintroduction is useful in bringing new genes into the wild population, but in terms of numbers, reintroduction is very expensive and of only marginal benefit. Chris Packham has argued that we should allow pandas to die out – "we should pull the plug, let them go with a degree of dignity"– rather than spend money trying to save them, because the panda is "not a strong species" and one that "has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac".

Yet the knee-jerk argument that pandas cannot exist on their own is nonsense. Biologically they are fine. The problem is that we have destroyed their habitat. So even better than reintroducing pandas to the wild would be to focus on preserving habitat for the ones that are left. More could be done for the wild population to create protected areas and connect them so they can roam between them.

I visited the Chengdu breeding centre and was very impressed by their work. For a country that does not have a good reputation for looking after animals – a lot of China's provincial zoos are quite frightening places – this place is spectacular. But in that beauty there lies a trap.

On the scientific level Chengdu is fantastic, but its moral legitimacy depends entirely on the continued existence of wild pandas.

Imagine that wild pandas no longer existed. Then the captive institution, instead of being an inspiring educational place, becomes a rather dismal Victorian freak show.

The problem is that people want to see pandas and you will not see them in the wild. You can go to a famous panda reserve and get a guided tour, and the ranger will tell you at the beginning that you will not see pandas. People still go, and they look at panda poo, and they are inspired by the place, but you will never see one.

I just worry that there is this double bind with pandas: they have massive appeal and a great educational value, but you have to see them for them to do that, and in seeing them you set up this artificial situation quite abstracted from the wild reality for pandas.

Pandas' success in captivity creates the illusion that everything could be alright – you could come away from seeing them there thinking, 'super, it will be OK', whereas they struggle terribly in the wild because of habitat destruction. Conservation of the giant panda is about more than one species because of the symbolic value it has carried for 50 years. Pandas inspire and they bring in money for conservation and so serve a very utilitarian purpose.

Henry Nicholls is the author of 'The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal'

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