I just got back from the Giant Panda Research Center in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China…and holy crap, pandas are cute! The video above shows a few of them munching on bamboo early this morning. But having spent the morning learning about the panda bear, I’ve come to the conclusion that pandas are an anomaly of evolution and probably would have gone extinct with or without human involvement.
Sure, I love pandas…they’re adorable, incredibly entertaining to watch, and they’re the poster animal for the World Wildlife Fund and all those other animal protection agencies. They’re also one of the worst-adapted animals on the planet. I’m pretty sure natural selection would have done away with them within a few thousand generations regardless of whether humans stepped in or not. Now it’s people that are keeping pandas alive, against the forces of nature. Outside of captivity, pandas — as a species — simply can’t survive.
Pandas do pretty much two things: sleep and eat. (I was told that if we didn’t arrive at the panda center precisely at feeding time, we would have seen nothing but sleeping pandas.) The panda’s entire diet consists of bamboo shoots and leaves, and it’s pretty much the worst food ever. Bamboo’s nutritional value is almost nil, and on top of that, pandas can only extract about 20% of the energy from the bamboo they eat — so they have to eat a ridiculous amount of it just to survive: eighteen kilograms (forty pounds) a day.
The problem is, pandas evolved from carnivorous bears, and their digestive tracts and stomachs are built for eating meat. They’re missing the special bacteria and protozoans found in the bodies of properly adapted plant-eaters (like cows) that make them thrive on grass. Therefore, they make up for it by eating a ridiculous amount of bamboo every single day.
Eating so much bamboo takes a huge toll on their environment, so in order for the ecosystem to function, adult pandas live a solitary life. Each one needs such a huge huge tract of bamboo forest to keep itself fed. In their natural habitat, pandas can go for a few years without even seeing another member of their own species. The only time they seek each other out is when it’s time to mate. A lot of years go by when pandas are unable to pair up, so they don’t reproduce. Another issue is that if there’s ever any sort of drought — which happens every few years naturally — the bamboo forests dry up and huge numbers of pandas die.
The Giant Panda Research Center has a few dozen pandas, and it sits on a huge chunk of land (by human standards). You’d think that such a giant tract of bamboo forest would be able to support a few dozen pandas, but it doesn’t even come close. The facility is able to produce only a fraction of the bamboo the pandas there need to survive. To make up the deficit, it’s delivered every week on big trucks, harvested in other parts of Sichuan. The pandas are completely dependent on humans, and could never have lived in such close proximity to each other in the wild.
The fact is, pandas have never existed in large numbers — there are simply not enough bamboo forests out there to keep a lot of pandas alive. This was a problem even before humans moved in. If a few generations of droughts were to happen, wild pandas would get wiped out by mother nature.
I don’t know when in the Earth’s history that pandas originally evolved, but I suspect that it was spurred on by the fact that bamboo was readily available year-round in Sichuan, while meat was harder to come by. The evolutionary predecessors were taking advantage of a surplus of bamboo in their environment, and eventually developed into their own species of dedicated bamboo eaters. But due to changes in the eco-system (some caused by humans, some not), bamboo isn’t as sure a bet now as it was in the past. And that’s why pandas are having a hard time in 2008, and will continue to have a hard time unless something happens to make a whole lot more bamboo.
An anomaly of evolution…good thing they’re cute
The panda bear we know it is one of two things: an anomaly of evolution that was likely to die out anyway, or an intermediate species that would have eventually grown into a more efficient (and quite different) plant-eater. Either way, its species wasn’t going to survive for long on Earth. Pandas, like many millions of species that came before them, would have been fazed out by the natural workings of nature. Now, with humans in the picture, we’re just accelerating the process. If things continue on this course, pandas should be extinct within my lifetime.
But luckily for pandas, humans are also what are keeping their species alive. In addition to their tree climbing skills and black and white fur, Pandas happened to evolve one other characteristic by chance: cuteness. It was a happy little mistake…and humans find pandas irresistible. Pandas are the symbol of China, the logo of the WWF, the star of Hollywood movies like Kung Fu Panda. People love pandas so we’re keeping their species alive in captivity.
There’s a reason why it’s the Giant Panda Research Center and not the Hideous Jackals Breeding Institute or the Sanctuary of Deadly Venomous Scorpions. People only want to keep cute animals alive.
I find it a quite arrogant of humans to pick one species that we’re going to save, and let others die without a second thought, but that’s just how things go. We can’t save ’em all.
The ultimate invasive species
Complex life has existed on Earth for 500 million years. In that period, there have been millions of species that have evolved, and millions of species that have gone extinct. Life is a struggle for existence. Every species that is ever born will one day die.
There are plenty of wildlife activists out there who insist that it’s unfair and unnatural that humans are destroying other animals’ habitats, thus leading to their extinction. Humans are animals too. We evolved just like every other animal — and from a common ancestor to boot. So since we are animals, how can what we do in our struggle for existence not be natural? And how can it be “unfair” if we’re in a struggle where there are no rules?
Any other species of animal would do what humans have done if they could. The goal of all life is to propagate one’s species, to reproduce, and to spread one’s seed as far as it will go. If a species is put in an environment favorable to its propagation, it will propagate. Like crazy. Take a look at invasive species….Cane Toads in Australia, Purple Loosestrife in American wetlands, Gypsy Moths… Invasive species, by definition, have an advantage in the environment where they are introduced. And as such, they will completely ravage the land until nature comes up with a new species (or climate crisis) that will counteract them.
To me, humans are just the ultimate invasive species. Sure, we are wiping out other species on Earth. That’s what successful species do when they’re in a favorable environment. Humans just happen to be the most inventive and adaptable animals in the history of Earth, so we’re especially hearty.
It’s a fluke of the human animal that we have compassion for animals of other species, such as pandas. Frankly, it come from humans mastering their environment, and thus having too much idle time to spend on non-survival activities, such as socializing, producing art, etc. One of our interests happens to be the cuteness of pandas, and so we pursue it.
Modern humans (“environmentalists” especially) also have an urge to minimize our impact and lead a sustainable existence – including minimizing our impact on other species of plants and animals. They do have a point. Living a more sustainable lifestyle will absolutely make the human species last a bit longer.
But humans will never be able to reach complete sustainability AND grow as a species. We’ll always be using up more and more of the Earth’s limited resources with each coming year. And eventually it’s going to get used up, and we humans, as a species, will become unsustainable By using up our environment, we will kill ourselves off. It is inivetable.
That is, if some other opportunistic organism doesn’t evolve to take advantage of some human weakness and do the job for us first. There are a whole lot of us, and whenever there are too many of any one type of animal, they make for awful good food.
The fact is, nature will someday serve humans our comeuppance. Like pandas, and every other species that’s ever hovered at the top of the food chain for too long, we will eventually be purged of the Earth and become a distant memory in her fossils. The dinosaurs died. Pandas will die. And humans will die too. It’s the way of the universe. The struggle for existence is a noble fight. But it will always be a losing battle.
Anyway, enough about my thoughts on pandas and nature. Here are some more pics and videos!
Video of some pandas wrestling…
These are smaller pandas that look and act a whole lot more like American raccoons than pandas. But they’re native to China, endangered, and also at the Giant Panda Breeding Center.