Pandas up, Gorillas down, but what’s the real lesson?

So there we have it. After twenty years and hundreds of millions spent, the Giant Panda is slightly less endangered than it used to be. Great news for the panda.

But this news arrives at the same time as the news the Eastern Gorilla is critically endangered, making it four out of the six great apes that are at real risk of imminent extinction in the wild.

The big problem for the Gorilla is economics. It pays to hunt them more than it pays to conserve them. Contrast this to the Giant Panda which is a money-making machine, literally iconic. We could easily turn things around for the Gorilla by simply paying people not to hunt them.

But that isn’t good conservation. The penultimate paragraph in that Guardian piece is the important one, and it highlights a real problem. Look at nearly any article on this IUCN story today and you will see it framed in terms of either improving pandas, or suffering gorillas. Yet the reality is of the 5000 or so species that are critically endangered, most are not mammals. Most are not big, charismatic and furry. They are plants, invertebrates, fish, and amphibians. Yet there is rarely a campaign fronted by these animals.

It’s a necessary evil to use ‘charismatic megafauna’ like pandas to ‘sell’ conservation to the people and corporations that can provide the funding. Very few will get their chequebooks out for a marine snail. But if that funding is then directed at just the one species, it is a sticking plaster that will never address the real decline.

For all that money spent, all those new pandas created in labs, the chances are the next thirty years will still see the wild population decrease. Because climate change and forestry will take a third of the suitable habitat go.

We also have to remember that ecosystems are linked on a global scale. Warming seas at the poles affect oceanic currents which affect winds, which affect terrestrial weather systems, which affect plants, which affect pollinators, and so on up the foodweb. That affects us too incidentally.

By all means we should use icons to drive fundraising. But the money has to be better spent, and it has to create areas of genuine wild habitat. It has to focus on plants and prawns, not just pandas.


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I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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