Pan Pan died last week. The giant mascot of panda conservation, he fathered over 30 cubs. In time, every fourth captive panda belonged to his bloodline. Considering there are fewer than 500 in captivity where panda breeding takes more than a minor miracle, Pan Pan’s contribution cannot be overstated.
The sad news from the geriatric ward of Dujiangyan Panda Centre in Sichuan, China, was preceded by a happy headline for Pan Pan’s wild brethren. This September, the International Union for Conservation of Nature noted a decadal rise of 17% in the wild population and revised the status of the giant panda from threatened to vulnerable.
The rise in the wild population — from 1,596 in 2004 to 1,864 in 2014 — is perhaps testimony as much to conservation efforts as to the refinement of estimation tools. Based on a DNA study of panda droppings in 2008, researchers claimed the wild population was underestimated and could be as high as 3,000. Despite the sceptics, that optimism has proved infectious since.
In spite of Pan Pan’s impressive efforts, the contribution of the super expensive captive breeding programme to the now 1,864-strong wild population is just 5 pandas. Since 2006, seven captive-bred giant pandas have been released into the Chinese wild. Two did not survive the initial weeks.
To its credit, China has also declared 67 panda nature reserves, adding 27 since 2003. Yet, every third wild panda lives outside protected forests. The habitat, although vast, is severely fragmented with 319 hydropower projects, a 1,339-km road network, and 270 km of high voltage power lines.
It did not take long after the world outside China discovered the giant panda, for it to became the most adorable global conservation icon. Zoos world over pay millions of dollars to China for a captive-bred exhibit or two on lease. Housing a giant panda is roughly five times as expensive as having an elephant.
The non-government sector is not lagging behind. Species for species, the giant panda raises more funds than even the rhino or tiger. To be fair, some of these funds are channelled into saving the wild population. Also, a good chunk of what China charges foreign zoos for giant pandas on lease is spent on conservation in the wild.
Still, the massive cost of captive breeding underlines the need for a rethink. Caring for a giant panda in captivity costs up to a million dollars a year. With a panda population of 400-plus and counting, that’s a lot of money that could be spent on securing natural habitats — the pandas’ true home — and the rest of the wild.
Captive breeding is anyway not a wildlife conservation tool in itself. The purpose is to build up a stock and reintroduce individuals into the wild. It’s not easy. For one, most species struggle to breed in captivity. There is no foolproof training protocol to make the young ones fit to survive in the wild. The bigger the species, the smaller the chances of successful reintroduction due to their progressively complex skill requirements.
Captive breeding, therefore, is best employed as an insurance against a potential crisis that may hit a species that is already vulnerable in the wild. Or it is the desperate last call to fight an emergency. In India, it became necessary when residual diclofenac — a painkiller — in cattle carcasses killed 99.9% of white-rumped vultures by the early 2000s.
But only a ban — though much delayed and not well enforced — on the veterinary use of diclofenac could see a tentative population rebound in certain pockets. The bottomline: captive breeding and reintroduction programmes are pointless without securing the natural habitat.
Take gharials, for example. Their eggs are hatched in breeding centres across India. Over the years, thousands of young ones have been released in the Chambal alone. But the population of the national aquatic animal in the river remains below 1,200. Sand mining, water shortage and overfishing has reduced the breed-and-release programme into a glorified replenishment tool. Even that sad equilibrium won’t last long if the habitat continues to bleed.
The exorbitantly expensive panda breeding programme needs a reality check. Compared to the 17% gain in the wild population, the captive population more than doubled in the last decade. As conservationists fine-tune their reintroduction experiments, focus should now shift to natural panda habitats.
The most remarkable finding of the latest giant panda census is that the species has expanded its presence in the wild. The area it inhabits increased by nearly 12% in the last decade. That’s where they need all the help that they can get.
At another level, the obsession with the giant panda — and indeed with a handful of other species — demands scrutiny. Does a species have to be cuddly or charismatic to be saved? In India, the tiger continues to hog nearly all conservation funds — government or otherwise — while species far more endangered cry for attention.
The argument that conserving apex species involves an umbrella approach helping all else that come under it, does not hold good unless all ecosystems get ticked. Nobody helped Great Indian Bustards in the name of saving the apex species of the semi-arid grassland where wolves themselves became near extinct and caracals rare. Nobody noticed as the once abundant wild buffalo faded away inside our tiger forests.
In these testing times, conservation cannot afford to play favourites. The priority is optimisation of resources to maximise democratic gains. An umbrella species, the giant panda’s natural habitat is also home to about 2,300 mammal, bird, and amphibian species. Each of them is a reason for securing all of them — in the name of saving the giant panda or not.
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