A new-born giant panda cub weighs in at a few ounces and is the size of a chocolate bar. It is pink, blind and toothless, can do nothing on its own and is desperately vulnerable. With a naturally low birth rate as well, it’s surprising that any ever survived in China’s vast bamboo forests.
But life for the instantly recognisable bear is especially precarious. Man has encroached so deep into its natural territory that its population has become fragmented and isolated. The species hangs on by a thread and is only a few years from extinction. From possibly 20,000 alive in 1900, only 1,000 may today live in the wild.
So when it was announced in September 2013 that 14 giant pandas, including a very rare set of triplets, had been born in 2013 in captivity at a research centre in the Chinese city of Chengdu, conservationists had real cause to celebrate. The great hope is that some of the pandas may be eventually reintroduced into the wild.
Pandas are lucky. As a “flagship” species, they are true celebrities of the animal kingdom. The Chengdu research station attracts as many people a year as visit the Tower of London, and when breeding pairs are lent to foreign zoos, people flock to see them as they do to major art exhibitions. More than one million extra people visited Edinburgh Zoo last year to see Tian Tian and Yang Guang try, but as yet fail to breed.
Visitors guarantee panda research money, but making sure that the animals can live in the wild is far harder. Back in the 1950s, it was thought that the best way to avoid their extinction was to trap and cage them. Now we know that it will take decades.
One plan considered is to use artificial insemination to establish a completely new population of previously captive pandas, only gradually letting them live on their own. Another idea is to teach them survival skills, to make them scared of humans before they are released.
And it’s not, of course, just pandas that are seriously endangered. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), thousands if not millions of other animals and plants are in critical situations, with numbers so depleted and natural habitats so damaged that few are likely to survive outside zoos and botanic gardens before much longer.
From China to Ghana and Brazil to Bangladesh, non-human populations are everywhere fragmenting, declining and dying out in the rush to develop cities, provide food and to exploit minerals. The IUCN believes that as many as 30-50 per cent of all the world’s millions of species will be heading towards extinction by mid-century.
Some, such as the rhino, are being traded to extinction. Others are being lost by accident when forests are felled. Some cannot survive climate change, and others succumb to conflict, pollution and development. In the past 500 years, we know of around 1,000 species that have become extinct, but this doesn’t account for thousands of species that disappeared before scientists had a chance to describe them. Nobody really knows exactly just how many species are in danger of becoming extinct.
Saving the flagship species such as the panda, whale, gorilla or orangutan is seen as a priority, because these animals provide a focus for raising awareness and funding conservation efforts.
Best known of all animals on the edge of extinction is the tiger. Over the past 100 years, they have died out across vast areas of central and southern Asia. Today, they range from Siberia to tropical mangrove swamps, but only 3,000-4,000 live in the wild, down from an estimated 100,000 at the start of the 20th century.
Tiger parts, ivory and rhino horn command a premium and with all now as expensive as gold, wildlife crime is third only in size to drugs and arms. So you might think there is little hope for other species, but conservationists, individuals and governments are all notching up remarkable success stories. One of the greatest triumphs is the Arabian oryx. Just 40 years ago, this graceful antelope was officially classed as “extinct in the wild”, with only a few thousand kept in captivity. Today, following a highly successful captive breeding programme and reintroductions linked to protection of the desert, herds roam free across hundreds of square kilometres of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, 45 minutes from Dubai, which is funded by the Al Maha Resort and Spa.
“The resort has played a vital role in establishing the conservation reserve,” says the resort’s General Manager, Arne Silvis. “We now have 15 conservation officers gathering information on wildlife, fauna and flora, and doing research projects. It’s very protected and is operated under a Ruler’s decree. It is well-supported by the government and local authorities. We know and trust that this will be around for generations to come.”
Attitudes to protection are changing, say some major groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, Conservation International and IUCN. The old idea was to protect animals behind fences and to exclude people. Today, the onus is on protecting where the animals breed and feed. That means establishing reserves, stopping poaching, tightening laws and raising awareness in local communities. Without these measures, it doesn’t matter how many animals are bred in captivity, because the species will be unable to fend for itself.
Most wildlife is not as recognisable as the giant panda, but that does not mean it is not valuable. What is certain is that without our active help, most animals will just as certainly die out, leaving the world a much poorer place.