Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Giant Pandamonium - Should Canada Rent Giant Pandas?

November began with the announcement that after years of international negotiations China would send a “breeding pair” of giant pandas to Canada, for 15 years, with each of three zoos having the pandas for five years each. The zoos are the Calgary Zoo, the Granby Zoo, in Quebec, and the Toronto Zoo.

That would be the same Calgary Zoo that recently has had a gorilla escape when a gate was left open; had a gorilla find and pick up a knife; had a hippopotamus die soon after arriving due to bad management during transport; had a baby elephant die from herpes; had a markhor goat hang itself with an enrichment toy; had a capybara crushed by a gate; had dozens of bats die after some genius strung piano wire in their cage to force them to the front to make them more visible to visitors; had a massive die-off of visiting stingrays due to poor water quality; had a tiger give birth to two cubs without anyone knowing she was pregnant, both of whom died; and, well, if the Chinese want to entrust their pandas to that facility, they’re more optimistic than I would ever be.

As for the Toronto Zoo, there is one possible problem: Toronto, days earlier, elected a right-wing mayor whose platform consisted pretty much of nothing more than cutting municipal spending, and the cost of these panda visitors is estimated to be about $20 million. Ouch.

Fear not! A city councilor, Giorgio Mammoliti, heads the Toronto Zoo board’s Panda Task Force, and assures us that the money can be raised without costing Toronto taxpayers a penny. China rents out pandas for about $2 million per year. Expensive special caging will have to be provided, at a cost originally estimated to be $15 million, since reduced to $10 million. Corporate sponsors will pick up part of the tab, the rest coming from admission fees, plus a special fee — the amount to be determined — to see the pandas, on top of the zoo grounds’ admission price.

The giant pandas are due in Toronto in 2012. They will be here when Toronto hosts the Pan Am Games in 2015, which could generate extra attendance. However, Mammoliti’s optimistic estimate that the pandas will boost zoo attendance by 450,000 per year is countered by the zoo’s own 2009 study that predicts that large an attendance boost only for the first year, falling to 150,000 the second year, 75,000 the third, and none at all for the final two years.

The whole thing is an exercise in hype, diplomacy, economics and the appeal of what conservationists refer to as the “charismatic megafauna.” Giant pandas are cute, and while the odd one has been known to take an irritable bite out of an annoying human, they are, compared to some of their ursine relatives, ever so cute and cuddly. I get that.

But as is true of tigers, people are creating two discreet populations of giant pandas. One exists in the wild as a group of further divided subpopulations inhabiting a series of reserves containing suitable habitat. The other is a captive group of animals who bring in millions, who often are bred using artificial insemination, and who have their natural, predominately bamboo diet augmented with higher-energy manufactured food. There is risk that the captive animals, like the wild ones, will not have enough room. We can create more zoos, but creating more habitat is what is needed to save the wild ones, and that’s the problem. There’s not enough habitat to provide a year-round supply of natural food for a larger number of wild pandas. What habitat there is already is populated with the wild animals whose total population size is unknown, the most optimistic assessment being as many as 3,000 pandas — twice the more-conservative estimates.

I am not sure there are enough millions of dollars to save the giant panda in the wild, and a human-dependent captive population of caged animals is perhaps all that will be left one day. I hope I’m wrong, but meanwhile those millions of dollars to be spent on giant pandas visiting Canada could do ever so much to save other species who are less charismatic, less well-known, but salvageable if we make the effort.

A couple of weeks earlier than the giant panda rental announcement, some 15,000 people convened in Nagoya, Japan, for the 10th conference of the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity to try to stem the greatest extinction spasm since the loss of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, and the only one caused by a single species: us. Experts estimate that extinction rates are now between 100 and 1,000 times the “natural” rate, prior to human population explosion and the massive impact of industry and technology. I’ll leave it to environmental journalist George Monbiot to give his opinion of the effectiveness of the conference. He wrote:

“It strikes me that governments are determined to protect not the marvels of our world but the world-eating system to which they are being sacrificed; not life, but the ephemeral junk with which it is being replaced. They fight viciously and at the highest level for the right to turn rainforests into pulp, or marine ecosystems into fishmeal. Then they send a middle-ranking civil servant to approve a meaningless and so far unwritten promise to protect the natural world.” In short, nothing much happened.

Growing pandas in cages and using them as tools of currency generation and diplomatic prestige is not going to protect that natural world, or the plethora of non-cute, not-charismatic fauna and flora that is circling the drain, headed to eternal oblivion as we practice business as usual.

Barry Kent MacKay
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA