Sunday, 4 December 2011

Panda voyeurism in Edinburgh should make us ashamed

I seem to be in a small minority of people who are dismayed about the arrival of two pandas at Edinburgh Zoo today.

Some of those expressing disquiet are upset about the underlying politics, and the diplomatic and trade ramifications of this deal between China and Scotland. There are also financial concerns about the cost of renting the pandas and paying to maintain them versus how much income the zoo will make through increased visits, and even if they pay for their keep, what any surplus will be used for. I find of these arguments against keeping pandas in Edinburgh convincing. But that's not what really upsets me.

The zoo argues that it is helping the conservation of pandas. In his book Way of the Panda, and a recent blogpost, Henry Nicholls questions the connection between keeping pandas in captivity and helping them in the wild. He concludes 'there is little, if any, overlap between the lives of captive and wild pandas'. No panda raised in captivity has ever been successfully released into the wild, so the captive breeding programme that Edinburgh will take part in will merely rear another generation of imprisoned animals. There's no convincing evidence that keeping pandas in zoos does anything to address the practical problems facing wild pandas, particularly habitat loss and poaching.

What saddens me most is what bringing the pandas to Edinburgh is going to do to people in Scotland. It will strengthen a culture of acceptance of keeping large animals as captives, on display. Children and adults will pay to experience animals behind bars, within concrete enclosures, unable to forage for food, undergoing controlled mating and with no interaction with other species except humans.

But a wild male panda has a territory of more than 10 square kilometers of habitat dense with bamboo. No bear should have to live in a small, sloping concrete enclosure without any of its natural food source. No civilised society should allow this, let alone use it as a voyeuristic form of entertainment, encouraging people to pay to look on and laugh.

The zoo's message will be that being boxed in and controlled is somehow safe, protective, even special (because pandas are so cute and rare). What's worse, they will try to pass this exploitation off as something to do with 'nature conservation'.
Bringing pandas to Edinburgh not only completely misses the point about what actually needs to be done to prevent them from becoming extinct (tackling the problem of poaching and strengthening the reserves of their natural habitat in China), but by bolstering tolerance in Scotland for keeping intelligent creatures in captivity it also chips away at our appreciation of nature and wildness and freedom.

What Scotland really needs is not caged animals from the other side of the world. We need more wild places, and more opportunities for people to experience the myriad wonders of life that exists here in its natural habitat. For every day a child spends at Edinburgh Zoo peering at bears behind bars, that's one day they haven't spent out in the woods, playing, exploring and having a real experience of nature. That's what makes me sad.

We can, and should, watch pandas on video, in the wild, not in some latter day circus on Corstorphine Hill.


  1. you're not alone in thinking this, Mandy . . .

  2. so true, and the zoo is also being incredibly cynical too in using the pandas as away to boost its falling visitor numbers.

  3. My sentiments exactly!!!
    I have just posted your blog on my Facebook status. I have been thinking about those poor pandas ever since I heard the news of them being transported to Edinburgh Zoo. Its just dreadful!

  4. Thank you for articulating a discomfort I silently felt during the media blitz about this event.

    And isn't the the timing — along with Alec Salmond visiting China on a trade mission — just a big, ugly metaphor for how willing we are to overlook human rights violations whenever we see someone with money we want to get our hands on?

  5. Well said Mandy. It all seems to be a big PR exercise to me. I was amazed to find a full-page Scottish Government funded advertising feature about them in our local paper. Have we (the tax payers) paid for this in every Scottish newspaper?

    Over the past year Edinburgh Zoo has had a lot of bad publicity. This seems to be a way of sweeping that under the carpet.