In a controversial interview to Radio Times magazine (via MSNBC), BBC naturalist Chris Packham said that money spent conserving the giant panda could be better spent trying to conserve stronger animals.
"Here's a species that, of its own accord, has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac. It's not a strong species. Unfortunately it's big and cute and it's a symbol of the WWF, and we pour millions of pounds into panda conservation. I reckon we should pull the plug. Let them go, with a degree of dignity," he implored.
Other naturalists have responded by calling Packham's startling assertions irresponsible. "It is a daft thing for Chris to say," said Mark Wright, a WWF conservation scientist. "Pandas have adapted to where they live. They live in the mountains where there is plenty of the bamboo they want to eat."
Pandas are highly endangered, and their numbers are estimated at only around 1,600 worldwide. Despite Packham's implication that the species has been responsible for its own precarious demise, the leading threat to the panda is habitat loss due to agricultural encroachment and China's human overpopulation problem. If pandas die out, the blame would fall primarily on people, not the bears.
Furthermore, conservation efforts to save the panda have been far from futile. Panda numbers are up an estimated 40% since the 1970's. When human-caused pressures are subdued, panda propagation seems to be healthy and strong, despite Packham's unusual claim.
Packham's litmus test for the evolutionary strength of a species also seems to ignore the species' actual evolutionary history. Pandas are well adapted to the specialized conditions under which they evolved, and until recently have thrived for at least the last 600,000 years. Since they have no major natural predators, they have evolved to control their population through infrequent, slow and inefficient breeding cycles.
Ironically, it is precisely those sustaining traits which now make the panda population so sluggish to recover. But regardless of the animal's current prognosis, Packham evokes evolutionary misconceptions in citing it as evidence that pandas are 'weak'.
If you'd like to help the conservation of the Giant Panda, one way is by donating to the World Wildlife Fund.