Should pandas be allowed to disappear into history? - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 26 February

Everybody loves pandas. Cute, cuddly and endangered, they are the global symbol of the wildlife conservation movement.

Should pandas be allowed to disappear into history?

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 26 February

David Harrison

Everybody loves pandas. Cute, cuddly and endangered, they are the global symbol of the wildlife conservation movement.

Scientists are doing everything they can to save the world’s favourite bear.

This week, we learned that that Britain’s only giant pandas are being given a special diet, physical training and played “mood music” in the hope that this will encourage them to produce the first cubs to be born in this country. Yang Guang and Tian Tian arrived in Edinburgh in December 2011 but so far their intimacy has failed to go beyond playful wrestling.

Playing “easy-listening” music to pandas may seem a bit desperate but surely we must support any initiatives that hope to prevent one of our great creatures from disappearing off the face of the Earth?

Or must we? Throughout history, species have come and gone. The mammoth and the dodo are the best-known examples but many others have slipped into extinction too.

Some scientists argue that this is the natural way and that “artificial” conservation methods are misguided, that we are “interfering” with evolution. If the panda cannot breed to survive, they say, then should it be allowed to go?

Pandas are notoriously bad breeders in the wild. Huge areas of their habitat in China and Southeast Asia have been destroyed and they are now found only in mountainous forest regions of southwestern China. Attempts to breed them in captivity have had little success.

In 2011 a study of 95 mammals in Australia devised a formula, based on current and minimum viable population sizes, that the researchers said should be used to decide whether endangered species were “worth saving”.

The mathematicians from the Adelaide and James Cook universities argued that, with limited funds available, we should concentrate our efforts on conserving species that are more likely to avoid extinction. The “tipping point”, they said, should be when there were fewer than 5,000 of any species left.

That formula would consign the tiger, some rhinoceros and the panda, with only 1,500 left in the wild, to oblivion.

At Edinburgh Zoo, Iain Valentine, director of giant pandas, rejects this idea. “Some people say pandas are in an evolutionary cul-de-sac and don’t know how to breed – yes they do,” he said. “They have been doing it very successfully for millions of years but we have destroyed much of their habitat.” If exercise and mood music fail to do the trick then the zoo will try artificial insemination, he said.

The panda is a special creature for many people and the fight to save it will undoubtedly go on. But there will also always be those questioning whether it is a worthwhile exercise.

Questions for your class

  • What does 'extinction' mean?
  • How many extinct species can you name?
  • Do you think that we should work to conserve endangered species? Why/why not?
  • How can zoos and wildlife parks play a role in conservation?

Related resources

Giant pandas on film

  • Watch giant pandas feeding on bamboo with this video from ARKive.


  • Find out all about the panda bear with this PowerPoint based resource using simple sentences to support Early Years.

What is an endangered species?

  • This activity looks at endangered species, what it means to be endangered and what causes a species to become endangered. Includes examples of conservation in action.

Endangered animals booklet

  • A simple booklet with lots of pictures and child-friendly language outlining the plight of some of the world’s endangered animals. A great stimulus for reading, writing and ICT.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

In the news this week

Highly emotionally charged drama has long been the fuel of successful Hollywood films. And in the past nobody cared too much about the veracity of the storylines.

What does the Pistorius and Steenkamp case reveal about the media’s treatment of women?

You wait years for space debris to come within range of the Earth and then two chunks come along on the same day.

Libraries, those bastions of public learning open to anyone with a plastic membership card, should be allowed to wither and die, a leading children’s author said this week.

In the news archive index