A cuddly flagship species of conservation

By Chen Liang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, September 23, 2016
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File photo taken on Jan 27, 2016 shows giant panda Ximei training her cub to climb tree during a wild training in Hetaoping Wild Training Base, Southwest China's Sichuan province. With the increasing number of giant pandas bred and kept in captivity, China started sending captive-bred pandas into the wild in 2006 in an effort to improve the genetic diversity and quality of the species. [Photo/Xinhua]

I'm not 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 of Nature 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, named Meng Lan, "talking" to her caretaker who speaks the Sichuan dialect at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, capital of 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 few countries have 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 million 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 the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, Spain, France, Japan, Germany, Australia, and Hong Kong and Macao.

This makes me think some pandas should also be able to understand French, Spanish or German. It's a classical case of conditioned reflex, a biologist friend told me. Considering a panda's natural response to its keeper's questions which we identify as the ability to understand a language, he said, how many languages pet dogs and cats have learned across the world given that they have been trained and taught in captivity for centuries?

Still, the panda video is interesting and has added to the charm of the animal as a symbol conservation and China. More than a fascinating animal, the panda is a flagship species of a unique ecosystem found only in a few mountain ranges of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. And living in that ecosystem are also hundreds of other endemic animals, birds and plants.

A flagship species is one that has "the ability to capture the imagination of the public and induce people to support conservation". The panda suits the bill. So let it be in the limelight.

The author is a writer with China Daily.


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