Bear witness: the 2003 portrait of Bao Bao hints at man’s enduring debt to nature. Photo: © Alexander von Reiswitz. Courtesy Museum fur Naturkunde Berlin
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Why do we fight so hard to save the giant panda?

Given how reluctant pandas are to breed, it may seem misguided to fund their conservation. But there's a reason we spend so much money.

A few years ago, I met a conservation student named Stewart who explained, at some length, why we should stop trying to save the giant panda. It wasn’t that he didn’t like pandas, he said, simply that too much money and effort had been spent on what was probably a lost cause, just because a conservation body had adopted the poor beast as its logo. I must confess that at first I was taken aback, but I also had to concede that pandas do themselves no favours when it comes to conservation (rarely has an animal seemed so reluctant to engage in sex), and, given the paucity of funding for other projects, it seems important to use what money there is wisely.

A few months later, quite coincidentally, I went to the opening of an exhibition where a display echoed Stewart’s argument, if more cautiously and rationally. Why do we spend so much on pandas, when the same sums could be much more effectively deployed elsewhere? What other, equally important species could have been saved from extinction at a fragment of the cost of the panda programme? The figures were compelling – and I cannot deny that, for a long time, I was persuaded.

Then, on a recent visit to the studio of the Berlin photographer Alexander von Reiswitz, I saw a picture that changed my mind. Von Reiswitz is an extraordinary artist but there was something more than usually moving about his portrait of Bao Bao, the giant male panda that came to Berlin Zoo in 1980 as a gift (or rather, a loan: of which, more later) from the Chinese leader Hua Guofeng to Helmut Schmidt.

I don’t know if it was the eyes, or the tilt of his head, or maybe it was the set of the mouth, but something about this image made me feel a kinship of sorts with this ­animal that called to mind the term my mother would use for very sensitive or highly attuned beings: an old soul. I asked von Reiswitz about the shoot, for a project called Zoogestalten, made between 1999 and 2003 at Berlin Zoo. He explained that when he first came to the city, he was astonished that the animals in the zoo were so famous. “Many newspapers wrote every day about them; everyone in Berlin knew their names . . . My idea was to make portraits of these zoo animals, and make them appear like superstars, because they definitely are superstars.” Photographing each animal (Tanja the elephant, a penguin named Alfonso, Mzima the rhinoceros and others) in close-up against a plain grey background, von Reiswitz got very near to them, physically and imaginatively. He says of Bao Bao, “My impression then was that he was very shy, but I know this is only a human interpretation. I was a little afraid during the shoot. I stood about forty centimetres from his body. After ten minutes he began to get nervous and the zookeeper told me to leave.”

A fascinating exhibition at the ­Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin reveals a little more about the life of the panda and its peculiar position in conservation circles. There are portraits here of Bao Bao as a superstar, his fame augmented by the story of the time he bit off the finger of a wildlife photographer who got too close. (When the finger was found in the enclosure it was packed in a frozen chicken and sent to the injured snapper . . . but it was too late.)

So much for the gentle giant image. Nevertheless, there is also pathos to be found in the museum’s account of his life story. When Bao Bao died in August 2012 at the age of 34, he was “the Methuselah” of the giant pandas living in zoos. Despite his long life, and many attempts to find him a mate, he remained without descendants – so far, at any rate: his sperm has been stored in a deep-freeze and is available for artificial insemination in the future.

But that future looks uncertain, if the finances are anything to go by. Keeping giant pandas has become prohibitively expensive. Contrary to the popular impression, the Chinese government does not offer pandas to foreign dignitaries, or zoos, as gifts; in fact, all pandas sent out from China are on paid loan and, as notes to the Naturkunde show tell us, “with a loan rate of €1m per annum, this exceeds the budget of many zoos”. At present, the number of pandas kept outside China is 162 overall, with 55 of them living in 19 zoos across the world. There are roughly 1,600 giant pandas still living in China, the number confined to mountainous regions of the south-west.

Given these costs, and its apparent tendency towards “Platonic” relationships, it is easy to dismiss our fairly miserable attempts to save the giant panda as misguided. Yet some progress has been made: in recognition of the animal’s international appeal, the Chinese government has created several new reserves in Sichuan Province as well as Gansu and Shaanxi – refuges not only for pandas, but also for other creatures being driven from lower land by the frighteningly rapid pace of development. Certainly, we have come a long way since the first white men saw a panda and immediately set out to shoot it (a photo in the exhibition shows those intrepid hunters, Teddy Roosevelt’s sons Theodore, Jr and Kermit, crouched proudly beside the panda they bagged in 1928, making them the first westerners to do so). On the other hand, as Chris Packham noted, writing in the Express, “To get more investment bang for conservation’s few bucks we need to protect a far greater variety of species than one hardy creature struggling to eat bamboo up a mountain.”

What we should be doing is saving habitats, not single species, no matter what their cuteness factor. And scrapping all kinds of other pointless activities, from huge arms contracts to self-defeating agribusiness and energy subsidies, and using the money saved to undo the damage we have done to the land and seas around us. That way, we would have lots of cash to stop the destruction of forests and peatlands, and even a few million on the side for such quixotic projects as saving the panda. Because these animals are worth it. Hunted for sport by the rich, then driven from large tracts of its natural habitat by agricultural and housing development, the giant panda deserves better than to be scrubbed from conservation’s ledger books through false accounting.

Yet there is still more to it than that. Gazing at von Reiswitz’s Zoogestalten portraits, I am reminded of what Paul Shepard said in his classic 1967 essay “Ecology and Man”:

If nature is not a prison and earth a shoddy way-station, we must find the faith and force to affirm its metabolism as our own . . . To do so means nothing less than a shift in our whole frame of reference and our attitude toward life itself, a wider perception of the landscape as a creative, harmonious being where relationships of things are as real as the things. Without losing our sense of a great human destiny and without intellectual surrender, we must affirm that the world is a being, a part of our own body.

What I feel, confronted with these photos, is not just a deep kinship, but also a form of continuity. We are here together and the only way to make ourselves at home is to share the land with these others, the animals which, as Shepard remarked, make us human. This was a view held by many Berliners back in the time of the Wall, as von Reiswitz recalled when we spoke at his studio: “During the time of the Wall, the zoo was a sort of local recreational area for people from West Berlin. This zoo was like a zoo inside a zoo during that time. So, people living in Berlin were very close to these animals, because everybody was in a zoo.”

John Burnside’s latest book is “I Put a Spell on You” (Jonathan Cape)

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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