A cuddly flagship species of conservation
I’mnot a fan of giant pandas, though they are cute and cuddly, and their unusual upright-sitting pose, bamboo diet, black-and-white fur and big eyes— thanks their eye patches— give them a comic appearance. And I know they are shy, and rare in the wild.
In particular, I don’t like the fact that people’s obsession with pandas has helped them steal the thunder of all the other animals in China. Many such animals are much more endangered in the wild— for example, different species of gibbons in China and the spoon-billed sandpiper, a sparrow-sized bird, just about 500 of which survive.
In fact, the panda is no longer endangered, as the International Union for Conservation ofNature recently downgraded its status from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on its red list of threatened species, because its numbers in the wild have been rising.
But monkeys and birds can’t compete with pandas when it comes to attracting eyeballs in this age of social media. Video clips of pandas are omnipresent on the internet, many of which have been viewed by millions of netizens.
One such hit video shows a giant panda, namedMeng Lan, “talking” to her caretaker who speaks the Sichuan dialect at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China’s Sichuan province.
In the video clip streamed to popular Chinese micro blog Sina Weibo, the keeper is seen carrying the giant panda, which weighs 30 kilograms, in his arms. While walking, the keeper is seen talking with the animal in the Sichuan dialect. “Fatty, you’re so heavy.” “Are you fat?” “Who is this fatty weighing more than 30 kg?” In response to each of the keeper’s questions, the panda essays a girlish “en”, which sounds like “yes” to a Sichuan native like me.
Based on the video, some media reports on pandas’ “language” ability have emerged. One report claimed many giant pandas can understand the Sichuan dialect, and some can even understand Japanese, English or the Cantonese dialect.
The first part of the reports is understandable as most of pandas in captivity live in the breeding centers in Sichuan and the forests in Sichuan were home to most of their ancestors. The second part is reasonable given that very fewcountries have the privilege and capability to keep giant pandas in their zoos. The typical cost of loaning a pair of pandas for a decade from China is $1 mil- lion a year. Plus, the countries need to have close political or economic ties with China.
Now, about 50 “panda ambassadors” are living outside the Chinese mainland— in about 20 countries and regions, including theUnited States, theUnited Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, Spain, France, Japan, Germany, Australia, andHong Kong andMacao.
Thismakesmethinksomepandas should also be able to understandFrench, Spanish orGerman. It’s a classical case of conditioned reflex, a biologist friend told me. Considering a panda’s natural response to itskeeper’s questions whichweidentify as the ability to understand a language, he said, how many languages pet dogsandcats have learned across the world given that theyhave been trainedand taught in captivity for centuries?
Still, thepandavideo is interestingandhasaddedto thecharmof the animal as a symbol of conservationandChina. More than a fascinating animal, thepandais a flagship species of a unique ecosystemfound only in a fewmountain ranges of Sichuan, Shaanxiand Gansuprovinces inNorthwestChina. Andliving in that ecosystem are also hundreds of other endemic animals, birdsandplants.
Aflagship species is one that has “the ability to capture the imagination of the publicandinduce people to support conservation”. Thepanda suits the bill. So let itbe inthe limelight.