Save vultures, not pandas

The giant panda is a cherished animal worldwide. It is the pride of China, the symbol for the World Wildlife Fund and a popular attraction for any zoo. It is not hard to see why. Pandas are fat, clumsy, adorable animals with visually distinctive fur. But cuteness comes at a high cost.

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Photo credit: Jian Bautista

All pandas are exclusively owned by China, so zoos in other countries have to rent each one for at least $1 million annually. That doesn’t include the cost of maintaining a satisfactory enclosure and importing a constant supply of bamboo. The government of China does not disclose its exact expenditure on panda conservation, but this year’s financing of a $1.6 billion sanctuary in Sichuan province gives a hint at what kind of price tag comes attached to these beloved Oreo bears.

Donors haven’t been dissuaded from panda conservation either. The WWF continues to emphasize pandas in its donation campaigns, even though the species is no longer endangered.

Juxtapose this with vulture conservation efforts. Four of the five vulture species endemic to Asia are classified as critically endangered — the highest threat category short of extinction. The oriental white-backed vulture on the Indian subcontinent experienced periods of near total extinction with several of its flock colonies already functionally extinct in northwest India.

The cause is unmistakably human. Indian farmers continue to use the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac on cattle, which is highly lethal to vultures who later consume the carcasses of those cattle. Poachers have killed entire flocks to keep them from swarming deceased elephants and rhinos. Non-Governmental Organizations, such as Save Vultures and Bird Life International, are working to conserve vultures. But they have experienced difficulty obtaining donations, media sympathy and government cooperation for one major reason: vultures are ugly. Really ugly. More specifically, their carcass-munching evolutionary behavior tends to unsettle people. Hollywood even propagated the myth that vultures patiently circle over the famished cowboy in the desert as he shakes his fist at them, while declaring he ain’t dead yet.

Panda conservation does not have to be mutually exclusive to vulture conservation. However, we should acknowledge two important observations: eco-donations are a finite resource, and humans are flawed in how they allocate it. In regards to the first observation, there is clearly an over-investment in pandas and an under-investment in vultures. The individual and corporate donors for these two efforts have the same rationale: they think species X is intrinsically valuable and must be protected.

However, the extreme disparity between panda and vulture fundraising validates the second observation about flawed allocation. Humans are not donating on the basis of a species’ utility in a given ecosystem. If they were, the plight of vultures would occupy the attention of activists worldwide. Instead, donations are made with a subtle undertone of selfishness. Pandas are pleasing to us and therefore we protect them.

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The truth is, vultures are a far better species than pandas. The importance of their role in the decomposition process cannot be understated, especially in Hindu India where deceased cattle are religiously safeguarded from human consumption. Nature’s avian clean-up crews break down carcasses much faster than other decomposers. This accelerated decay process helps prevent the spread of diseases like anthrax, rabies, tuberculosis and botulism. Additionally, vultures are preferable to carcass competitors, such as wild dogs, because vultures pose no threat or nuisance to humans.

The modern vulture is also a fantastic product of evolution. Their digestive system is highly effective at processing rotten flesh, much of which would devastate the stomachs of other animals. Their diet is the most sustainable in the world. For as long as there are animals, there will be carcasses. Vultures are not endangered because of any flaw in their biology — rather, human interference is to blame.

Pandas are a different story. As a species of bear, they still have meat-processing intestines and carnivore teeth. For some reason, however, their fearsome ancestors ended up in bamboo-rich lowlands and never left. Evolution traded their predator agility for a 99 percent bamboo diet. Bamboo is, coincidentally, extremely low in nutrition. The giant panda’s bear guts process very little of the plant intake, which means the animal has to compensate by munching down 26-84 pounds of bamboo every day.

This produces a troubling quandary for conservationists: any increase in panda populations will correlate with a decrease in bamboo forests. Mo’ pandas, mo’ problems. In fact, China’s remaining bamboo forests are already at risk from excessive logging. If a zoo keeps one panda for just one year, it will have to purchase a minimum of 30,660 pounds of bamboo from loggers. Multiply that by the approximate 300 giant pandas on loan from China, and you have a global demand for 9.2 million pounds of bamboo each year. On top of all this, pandas are notoriously slow to reproduce and are neither prey nor predator in any significant way, meaning they play no role in the cycle of life.

Conservationists and donors have to recognize the giant panda for what it truly is as a species: adorably flawed. We can still stabilize their population, but that effort must not come at the expense of more important species, like vultures. That is exactly what is happening right now. Every dollar that goes to feed a panda could have gone to save a vulture. Every biologist studying a chubby bear that lays around all day could otherwise be studying our vanishing decomposer birds. The over-investment in panda conservation is increasing their numbers, an unsustainable practice that is egged on by zoo managers who see them as tourist attractions. The under-investment in vulture conservation will result in the continued extinction of one flock colony after another. When the last vulture dies, we may be wondering where we went wrong.