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21 May 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 5:07am

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.

By John Burnside

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.)

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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.

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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)

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