Thu, Jan 12, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Letter: Exploited pandas help nobody

By Christina MacFarquhar

China's State Forestry Administration announced on Friday that two giant pandas, from among 11 suspects being held at the Wolong Center in Sichuan, have just been charged and sentenced to exile in a prison on Taiwan, for being too endangered and attractive to be granted permanent residency in their homeland.

The administration didn't exactly use those words, preferring China's official term "gift," but that is what it comes down to -- the further persecution of a species already threatened by modern man's determined reshaping of the natural environment, due to its perceived usefulness as a cuddly, charismatic bartering chip by the Chinese government.

The majority of Taiwan's conservation groups have been excluded from the discussion by the Forestry Bureau, which has invited only a limited selection of government agencies, academics and NGOs to help review Taipei City Zoo's application to import and host the pandas. Even the zoo's breeding proposal is not being made available to those outside this review committee, despite the fact that one of the original requirements set by the Council of Agriculture was that the consent of local conservation groups would have to be obtained.

The breeding proposal suggests research of the pandas' behavior "in the Taipei City environment." It is not explained whether this peculiar notion refers to the reaction of the pandas' lungs to the dioxin-laced fumes of the waste incinerator near the zoo, or how they might fare in the muggy, subtropical heat of the Taipei summer after having evolved in the cold, damp bamboo forests of Sichuan Province in China. Either way, the only real benefit of such research is the lame excuse that it provides conservation funding, which will benefit Taiwan.

It should be noted that there has always been widespread concern that panda "rent" money and fund proceeds given to China have often failed to reach conservation projects, or have otherwise been misused or wasted.

News on progress in rescuing this species from the brink of extinction has oscillated over the past few years between gloomy reports that numbers in the wild are still declining due to continuing habitat destruction and poaching, to joyful accounts of the hope offered by artificial insemination and captive breeding technology, through which captive panda birth and survival rates seem to have increased. But the latter should only please those happy to see the species survive as a living museum piece; so far not one of the dozens of cubs born in captivity has been released into the wild.

Instead they are used to maintain the captive population, along with others that it is suspected are still being caught in the wild for the same purpose. Whether or not Chinese panda conservation authorities are sincere in their aim to use captive breeding to repopulate the wild, they are clearly failing to do so.

Whether this is the fault of project managers, or due to their government's lack of support for conservation efforts, the fact remains that by receiving two captive pandas Taiwan would, at best, be helping to perpetuate a system that maintains and increases the number of pandas behind bars (or glass), and at worst, be contributing to the decline in the wild population.

But what about the panda's celebrity role as a so-called "flagship species," one that, through its endearing aesthetic and behavioral features, can draw crowds, cash and enthusiasm worldwide for the conservation of its habitat, and therefore whole ecosystems? Wouldn't any additional suffering of a few of these animals be justified by the gain in concern for this species and the many others in its habitat, as well as inspiring Taiwanese zoo-goers to take more care of their island's native species?

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