One of the theme of this blog since I started in 2013 is that there is a lot more to the natural world than the obvious subjects of television natural history documentaries. Today, I put those noble ambitions to one side temporarily with a post about one of the most iconic of all animal species. The motivation was a visit to the Panda Breeding Research Base at Chengdu in Southwest China, which has over 100 pandas, many born at the centre. It also has some of the biggest crowds that I saw at any tourist attraction in China, including a high proportion of Westerners. Wandering around the attractively-landscaped grounds, the appeal of pandas was obvious, even to a hard hearted cynic such as myself.
They are not just one of the most anthropomorphic of all mammals, they are also more “teddy bear”-like than any real bears. I remember reading a paper years ago that documented how teddy bears had, over time, evolved from being “bear-like” to having more human-type features; the panda’s physiognomy naturally has a a shorter snout, more rounded features and a high forehead than true bears. Combine this with the “pseudo-thumb” which allows it to grip food in a very human-like manner and the reasons for our strong emotional response to pandas becomes clear.
Many conservation biologists subscribe to the theory that focusing attention on a few charismatic “flagship” species is the best way to ensure conservation of its habitat. In the short term this may be a pragmatic policy, but I have my doubts about it as a long-term strategy and fear that the underlying philosophy is flawed. Watching the crowds “ooh” and “aah” at the antics of the panda, and their subsequent free-spending on panda-themed tat in the gift shops, I wonder whether the principle of ‘flagship species’ theory is risky because of the intense focus on a few selected species. The danger is that the mountain forests of Sichuan province are valued only as habitats for pandas; the bamboo that it eats gets an honourable mention in a supporting role, and all other organisms are reduced to ecological “extras”.
These are tricky waters to navigate because whilst a level of empathy with nature is a prerequisite to responsible stewardship of the environment, this needs to be based on more than a sentimental attraction to organisms that behave in ways to which humans can relate. This sentimental appeal is encapsulated by a signboard at the Panda Breeding and Research Base which carries a quote from the Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi (772 – 846): “Who says animals are lowly? They are just the same as humans. Please don’t shoot the bird because the babies are calling their mother.” But what happens when the ecosystem contains none of the organisms that promote this emotional response? How do you construct a case for the conservation of these habitats? What about the pearl mussels that have been the subject of several posts on this blog in the past?
An emphasis on “flagship species” is also hard to reconcile either with a utilitarian “ecosystem services” philosophy towards environmental management or a more spiritual recognition of the oneness of nature. It may work as a crude marketing strategy for habitat protection in a few cases, generating revenue and leveraging public and political support. However, it distorts the picture that ecologists should be presenting to the world and that is not in anyone’s long-term interest. Perhaps this intense focus on “flagship species” is a symptom of (or a response to) the deeper malaise of our disconnection from nature?
My fascination with ecology stems from the extraordinary diversity of life and complexity of the interactions between organisms and with their environment. Much of this is played out on a scale that is beyond the resolution of the human eye, and amongst organisms that have no anthropomorphic characters. Ecologists can describe and measure what is going on to some extent, but communicating the prosaic business of nature’s “back room staff” is always going to be a challenge. My response, which may sound counter-intuitive, is to accept that science can only give us partial and selective insights into the natural world and to move towards more abstract language. We know enough now to recognise the importance of a holistic view of nature, to know that we should be stewards for future generations, and to know that folly of unchecked exploitation of the natural world. The need for pandas and other “flagship” species is really a sign of a deeper spiritual malaise, reflecting how we have forgotten to “tread lightly” as we go about our business.
Gould, S.J. (1992). The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. W.H. Norton, New York.
Hinde, R.A. & Barden, L.A. (1992). The evolution of the teddy bear. Animal Behaviour 33: 1371-1373.