When Edinburgh zoo received the giant pandas Tian Tian & Yang Guang in December 2011, the news spread like wildfire – as did the hope that the two would mate. It was announced last week that the pandas were unsuccessful in their mating attempts, meaning that there will be no cubs this year.
Pandas are notorious for their lack of reproductive success, because of their very short fertile period (about 36 hours). Pandas also often show a lack of interest in mating when they’re in captivity, and often…well, don’t seem to know what to do! On top of all of that, if a panda is very lucky and manages to not only become pregnant but also give birth to twins, the mother usually selects the strongest twin, and leaves the weaker cub to die.
The fact that the pandas failed to mate this year is not especially bad news, although many of the news reports make it seem that way. The couple are on ‘loan’ to Edinburgh Zoo for a decade, and due to jetlag and colic, their transition to the zoo has not been especially smooth, so they have only recently settled in. Another 9 years of attempts may well lead to panda cubs, especially given their enthusiastic attempts, suggesting the attraction is there.
Pandas are a hugely controversial conservation effort. They are considered a conservation-reliant species, meaning that they need our help to survive, even if populations were large enough to be self-sustaining. This has led to some debate over whether millions of pounds should be invested into saving the pandas (Chris Packham famously called captive breeding “pointless”). As an idea of the costs involved, Edinburgh zoo are paying approximately £600, 000 per year to the chinese government for the loan of pandas. On top of that, giant pandas are the most expensive species to care for in captivity – about five times more expensive than elephants.
However, giant pandas are also a worldwide symbol of conservation efforts – if they were ”given up on’ so to speak, this could imply that donating to conservation charities and captive breeding programmes is a waste of time, since species would be allowed to die out eventually anyway.
How do you feel about pandas? Should we invest in their recovery – either because they’re cute or because they are a symbol of conservation? Or should we leave them to a fate, that without our help, would be inevitable?