A cud­dly flag­ship species of con­ser­va­tion

China Daily (USA) - - VIEWS - The au­thor is a writer with China Daily. chen­liang@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.


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