The myths and real threats facing pandas

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They are immensely cuddly. Not really. They're bears and they can be aggressive.

Yang Guang inside his enclosure at Edinburgh zoo
Yang Guang inside his enclosure at Edinburgh zoo Credit: Reuters

Breeding them in zoos is crucial to saving the Giant Panda from extinction. Not really.

WWF, whose symbol has been the Giant Panda since it was founded in 1961, says:

As China's economy continues rapidly developing, this bamboo-eating member of the bear family faces a number of threats. Its forest habitat, in the mountainous areas of southwest China, is increasingly fragmented by roads and railroads. Habitat loss continues to occur outside of protected areas, while poaching remains an ever-present threat.

– World Wildlife Fund

The biggest threat to pandas is the loss of the places they like to live.

And as one Chinese zoologist says:

There are no successful examples anywhere in the world of any kind of bear bred in captivity being successfully returned to the wild.

This is not a popular thing to say as Edinburgh Zoo struggles to persuade Sweetie and Sunshine to breed, but I doubt whether their efforts will make much difference to a species whose numbers in the wild are down to about 16,000.

Pandas in the 'love tunnel' at Edinburgh Zoo
Pandas in the 'love tunnel' at Edinburgh Zoo Credit: Edinburgh Zoo

I don't doubt their dedication and I don't doubt that the pandas in Edinburgh are a huge attraction.

Why else would the zoo pay $1 million a year to 'rent' them from the Chinese?

And that's the secret really.

The pandas are PR for the conservation movement and they're brilliant at it.

Breeding programmes in zoos may not save the population in the wild from extinction, but by bringing millions of people around the world face to face with this charismatic animal they're sounding a very important alarm.