Black and white and shades of grey;Science

8th May 1998 at 01:00
We shouldn't confuse conservation with interference, says Helen Flatley, and that includes letting the panda go.

As a biology teacher mentally preparing myself for a discussion on conservation, I decided to practise (in the sad way that teachers do) on a group of friends I had invited for dinner. I broke it to them that they would be expected to participate in a debate - "Should the panda be saved?". They looked doubly shocked. First, at the thought of having to work for their supper, and second at the topic. Of course it should. That's just a given, isn't it?

I'm not so sure, although I wasn't surprised by their reactions. I gave them five minutes to marshall their thoughts and then interrogated them. Sorting through the verbiage, their arguments in support of the gut reaction of "Yes!" only amounted to two strands: (1) Yes, because conservation is a "good thing"; (2) Yes, because the panda is, well, cuddly, isn't it?

So, is conservation necessarily a good thing? What is conservation? "Preserving a natural ecosystem" was one of the increasingly sulky responses I elicited from my harassed diners.

Okay then, let's take the example of the Norfolk Broads. The Broads authority was established in 1989 to manage this wetland ecosystem and to try to balance the conflicts between various interest groups.

It is engaged on an expensive programme of clearing the Broads to bring back clean water. This involves dredging to remove silt, and "biomanipulation", which means removing certain species of fish (mainly roach, which are driven by an electric current into nets), adding Daphnia to the water to remove the algae, replanting desired vegetation and replacing desired fish stocks. Surely any ecosystem worth its salt could manage without all that sort of interference?

Of course it could. Left to their own devices the Broads would revert to alder woodland. The Broads don't care that they've gone all silty and smelly. This is not so much conservation as interference in the process of natural succession for the benefit of anglers, sailors and tourists. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as long as we're honest about it, but this is nothing to do with preserving a "natural" eco-system. The Broads never have been "natural" - they came into being as a result of medieval peat diggings.

The trouble with "conservation" is that we're often trying to freeze a moment in time, and we choose which moment it should be according to our own particular aesthetic tastes or leisure interests without necessarily thinking of the long-term view.

The problem is that we don't really believe in evolution - we're just too short term. We can't help but regard ourselves as the pinnacle of all that has gone before. We pay lip-service to the idea that evolution has happened, but we don't really think it is still happening - the time-scale is just too great for us to handle. So we try to hang on to what we've got because we think here and now is the best it's ever going to be.

Which brings us back to the panda. The panda has made some extraordinarily bad choices in its time. Although having the digestive system of a carnivore, it took to a mainly vegetarian diet. And the vegetation it picked on has the habit of flowering all at once, every l0 to l00 years depending on the species, so that overnight the panda's food source in a particular area disappears and takes up to 20 years to grow back to maturity.

This means that the panda needs an enormous territory - if it can be bothered to move. An adult panda has to spend up to 14 hours a day eating between 12 to 14kg of bamboo simply to stay alive. This does not leave a lot of time or energy for activities such as migration - let alone sex and parenthood. I'm sorry, but this sounds like Dead End Street Evolutionsville to me.

One good choice the panda did make though was to develop a cute colouration, particularly patches round the eyes, so it reminded sentimental human beings of cute, round, cuddly things with big eyes like - well, human babies. As a result it got itself adopted as the Worldwide Fund for Nature logo. And as a result of this, almost $11 million (pound;6.4m) has been spent by the WWF on conservation in China, and a $52m (pound;30.5m) panda management plan has recently been approved by the Chinese Government.

I'm sorry? - $63 million on fewer than l,000 pandas, which most of the time can't be bothered to procreate, let alone look after the odd offspring? When there are animals out there that would give their all to survival if given a fraction of that amount of support? Not to mention people.

I know that it will be embarrassing, but the WWF is just going to have to realise that for a logo it has chosen a dead duck. The panda is on its way out. The panda does not want to live. Let it go. And let's look forward in the next thousand million years to whatever might come next.

* Helen Flatley lives in Wigan, Lancs

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