Tian Tian, a 275-pound male giant panda at the National Zoo in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
Should scarce conservation dollars be spent to keep the giant panda from going extinct, when that same money could be used to help many other species struggling to survive?
Following the death of a baby panda at the National Zoo, simply raising the question was enough to spark outrage. "This is yet another ignorant question by the most destructive and arrogant species on the planet: humans," one commenter posted on a Los Angeles Times story that addressed the issue.
"To ask the question 'do we need pandas' is indicative of just how disgusting and ignorant humans are, as if the 'we' in question is the only relevant point of view."
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Said another poster: "When we can waste money fighting wars for oil, or spending millions of dollars on negative political campaigning, or spending government money on space exploration that can be done by private industry for less, we should not even consider this question."
The reality, however, is that conservation dollars are limited. And with many species struggling to survive, some experts suggest that those scarce dollars would be better spent on a species that has an easier time reproducing and a more hospitable natural habitat.
But, of course, few of those species are as beloved as the giant panda.
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The giant panda is the rarest member of the bear family. About 1,600 giant pandas are left in the wild, plus a few hundred in captivity. One of the reasons the panda struggles to survive, conservationists say, is that portions of its natural habit are in jeopardy because of human encroachment.
The famed Linnean Society of London is hosting an Oct. 15 debate titled "Do We Need Pandas? Choosing Which Species to Save." The gathering will focus on the issue of panda conservation efforts and this pointed question: "Do our conservation efforts focus on large, charismatic species at the expense of many others which may be easier to save?"
A 2009 article in the Guardian newspaper asked conservationists to tackle this issue. Chris Packham, a TV personality and naturalist, stressed that he wanted to see the giant panda survive. But he said he was also a realist:
"Extinction is very much a part of life on Earth. And we are going to have to get used to it in the next few years because climate change is going to result in all sorts of disappearances....
"I'm not trying to play God; I'm playing God's accountant. I'm saying we won't be able to save it all, so let's do the best we can. And at the moment I don't think our strategies are best placed to do that."
Panda fans around the globe were in mourning Monday after learning that the National Zoo's newest resident, a cub born to giant panda Mei Xiang, died unexpectedly Sunday morning. The event at the Linnean Society had been scheduled in advance of the panda cub's death.
But the question remains: Should conservation dollars continue to pour into efforts to save the giant panda -- or is it time to rethink what some consider to be a losing strategy?