Congratulations on your new panda cub, Washington! You're prolonging the existence of a hopeless and wasteful species the world should've given up on long ago.
I understand the impulse. Some people find them cute. Pandas don't have much of a habitat left in the wild, thanks to heedless human development. And zoos imagine they're doing the right thing, pulling in some extra visitors while helping conservation efforts.
But the first test of a species' worthiness for conservation should be some instinct for self-preservation. And pandas fail objectively.
First, their breeding habits don't suggest a species brimming with vitality. Pandas at a research center in Chengdu were so disinclined to mate that workers there subjected the poor things to Viagra and videos of other bears procreating, hoping they'd get the idea. Zoos, including in Washington, more often resort to artificial insemination. In the wild, where birthrates aren't much better, pandas are prone to inbreeding. Females only ovulate for a few days each year, and if a mother does manage to have more than one cub, she abandons the weakling. That's fine; nature's mean. But don't whine when a species with such habits falls into inexorable decline.
Second, although blessed with a bear's predatory teeth, the lethargic beasts eat almost nothing but bamboo -- a plant that's nearly devoid of nutritional value and disappearing in the wild. Pandas consume 40 pounds of it a day, eating constantly, speeding their own demise.
"Here's a species that of its own accord has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac," Chris Packham, a British author and wildlife activist, said in 2009. He argues that "the panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half-century."
He's right. The economics of protecting this doomed species are simply unjustifiable. Canada last year spent $10 million renting the creatures from China while cutting government spending elsewhere. American zoos typically pay the Chinese government $1 million annually for a single panda (subject to negotiation). If they have cubs? That's another $600,000. Taking care of them -- supplying them with a habitat, staff and all that bamboo -- costs five times what it costs for elephants, the next most expensive zoo animal. And zoos typically find that the cost overtakes the benefits in added attendance after about three years.
Lu Zhi, a panda expert from Beijing University, has said that trying to reintroduce pandas to the wild is as "pointless as taking off the pants in order to fart." Yet the Chinese government -- which sees pandas as a source of national pride -- spares no expense on them. That includes funding the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda, where researchers dress up in preposterous panda costumes (I'm really not joking about this) hoping to fool cubs into thinking they're a relative.
This in a country where roughly 160 million people still live in extreme poverty. And all to protect about 1,600 dim herbivores that are debasing the word "bear," which otherwise applies to noble beasts that manage to find plenty to eat in the wild.
Look, Darwinism isn't for crybabies. And conservation requires making tough choices. Pandas had a pretty good run for 3 million years. All that money is better spent on preserving diverse habitats rather than on a single hopeless species.
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Timothy Lavin at firstname.lastname@example.org