20 February 2019
How much responsibility can a panda bear for its own future? Photo: Bloomberg
How much responsibility can a panda bear for its own future? Photo: Bloomberg

Lifting a paw for the future

To see a giant panda is to want one – there is little not to love about them. Black-and-white pandas are the chubby, doe-eyed slackers of the animal kingdom and, despite their preference for untamed regions, have all the makings of a domestic animal. It’s just that, quite clearly, there are not many of them. 

The giant panda is the poster child of the international conservation movement and not without good reason. Only about 1,600 of them are left roaming the earth and if this animal can be brought back from the brink, there is hope for all other endangered species. They tend to congregate in the southwest province of Sichuan where the elements can kill but the air is clean.

Even when roused, the adult animal is reluctant to reproduce but it’s not all bad news – dozens of cubs have been born in captivity over the last two decades. The total is no mean feat for a species that only becomes interested in creating future generations three days a year. It’s a small window of opportunity that has been shown to become even smaller in captivity. More than half of all the male pandas in behind bars just aren’t interested.

To reverse the population decline, animal scientists have turned to artificial insemination and now most captive births are the result of human engineering. The scientists have also turned to improved nutrition and pornography. It’s a rite of passage for young male pandas to be shown videos of consenting adults in intimate situations.

Added to that, the bamboo is home-delivered and the environment studiously monitored at captive breeding centers. Everything a panda could ever need or want – from humidicribs to the chance to star in a documentary – is on tap for the inmates. The creature comforts apparently have a big impact on life expectancy – wild pandas are thought to live until about 20 years of age while the captive animal can better this figure by at least a decade.

But how long can this human intervention go on? And how much responsibility should a panda bear for its own future? The rule of thumb, even if it is not opposable, is that nobody will help you if you won’t help yourself.

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