Panda Preservation in Taiwan: Helping Sink the Flagship

Note: A version of this piece is featured in the Taipei Times as a letter to the editor.

China’s State Forestry Administration announced on 6 January 2006 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" (although there are plenty of more fitting words for a transaction in which goods and money change hands). 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.

Taiwanese environmental and animal welfare groups are firmly against importing the pandas offered to KMT Chairman Lien Chan by China last April. The majority of these groups have, however, been excluded from the discussion by the Forestry Bureau, which has invited only a limited selection of organisations and academics to join the committee set up in November 2005 to 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 the committee, and all this despite the fact that one of the original requirements set by the Council of Agriculture (COA) was that the consent of conservation groups would have to be obtained.

The breeding proposal, an English translation of part of which is nevertheless available here1, suggests research of the pandas' behaviour "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 would be the lame excuse it provides to bring these live political gifts to Taiwan and make them the subjects of a sizable commercial enterprise.

The proposal estimates potential profits of at least NT$9million (approx. US$279,542) a year from visitor donations and sales of panda souvenirs, of which 40 percent would be spent on the pandas in Taiwan, and another 30 percent would be given to panda breeders in China, although there is no guarantee that the funds will actually be used to improve conditions and prospects for this and other species threatened mainly by destruction of their forest habitat (numerous sources claim that panda "rent" money and fund proceeds given to China have often failed to reach the 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. And 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 behavioural 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 bamboo habitat, as well as inspiring Taiwanese zoo-goers to take more care of their island's native species?

This is what Taipei Zoo suggests with its proposal that what profit remains after China has received its share would constitute a fund to raise public awareness of wildlife conservation issues. Yet any claims by the Zoo of concern for animals ring hollow in the light of the Zoo’s recent disgrace. As was revealed by Environment and Animal Society Taiwan (EAST) in a press conference on 15 November 2005, Taipei Zoo is in no position to set examples for the rest of society. Video footage taken by EAST in the Zoo over the past four years features bears that have been driven insane by their long term enclosure in dismal, restricting environments, displaying a condition know as stereotypies, whereby they walk round and round in circles and constantly shake their heads. How can the Zoo possibly harness public support for protection of these animals, when it coops them up in conditions so far removed from what they need that they no longer behave as they would in the wild, drawing exclamations from young onlookers that the bears are "dancing" or "on ecstasy"2? It would seem that the first logical step, before any talk from the Zoo authorities about adding new bears to the menagerie in order to help save animals nationwide, would be for them to save the animals already suffering right under their noses.

As for the benefits associated with flagship species' such as the giant panda, there is uncertainty as to how effective they actually are in generating support for ecosystem conservation. Researchers Andreas Kontoleon and Timothy Swanson say in their 2003 study of the phenomenon that "despite being such a prominent flagship species, current conservation efforts for the panda are not focused on habitat conservation but increasingly rely on captive breeding programs in ex situ facilities. Funding for the panda is increasingly allocated to panda preservation alone." 3 The report also found that public support for conservation of such animals dropped by almost a half when they were not conserved within their natural surroundings. Hence, in financial terms, leaving pandas in China is better both for pandas and for their habitat.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which has been involved in panda conservation since the 1980s, confirms that conservation of the panda within its habitat is the priority. It also highlights the senselessness of the focus on captive breeding: "…barely 28% of adult pandas reproduce in captivity" compared with 100 percent in the wild4. Even Taiwanese scientists would have to admit that, no matter how great the advances in artificial insemination if they were to get their latex gloves on a panda, they would never be able to beat that record5 .

So what we are being sold is not conservation, but science for the sake of science. No amount of experimentation will equip researchers with panda-saving wisdom more valuable than what they already know about the major threats – the same threats faced by innumerable species in Taiwan. Taipei Zoo’s attempt to become part of an international panda rescue mission demonstrates that, as happens all too often, we have our conservation agenda upside down. By focusing on something large, popular and mysterious we may be able to distract ourselves from our contribution to the peril faced by all creatures great and small on our own soil. But it will not stop the mining, road building or dam construction, nor mitigate the various forms of harmful pollution we as individuals impose on other animals.

As for renaming the pair “freedom” and “democracy” as suggested by Thor McGillacuddy in the Taipei Times on 8 January, if it is at all necessary to give anthropocentric names to the animals, let us at least save these two for the first captive-born to truly escape from man’s exploitative clutches.

1Thanks to an anonymous source.

2The Liberty Times (B6), 16/11/2005.

3Andreas Kontoleon and Timothy Swanson, “The Willingness to Pay for Property Rights for the Giant Panda: Can a Charismatic Species Be and Instrument for Nature Conservation?”, Land Economics, November 2003.

4Especes Nouvel état des lieux : LE PANDA GÉANT : PAS ENCORE TIRÉ D’AFFAIRE, WWF Belgique, 15/02/01

5Part four of Taipei City Zoo’s Breeding Research proposal describes potential research into the pandas’ reproductive physiology and artificial insemination.

Christina MacFarquhar