In 1987, the Chinese government established the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, China. Over the past 20 years, the panda population at the Base has grown from six pandas, taken from the wild, to over 100, which are now bred there. The educators and researchers on the base have learned more about pandas than could have been hoped. Research on the base ranges from the genetics of pandas to the social and physical development of these animals. Educators and scientists are now more aware of what needs to be done to protect the giant panda and of just how daunting this task is.
I recently traveled to the panda base and met with Dr. Sarah Bexell, chief director of the Department of Conservation Education at the base. I saw firsthand the effort the Chinese government is exerting to save this endangered species, and I began to truly understand some of the major hurdles that need to be overcome before many of the major environmental problems facing our world can be solved. The process is a complicated one and involves much more than government spending. Other minimum requirements include consuming less and increasing awareness of the way our actions affect the natural world. During my time on the base, I was impressed by how the Chinese government is acting with regards to these matters.
Upon arriving at the base, I immediately realized the tremendous value of investing in a center like this. Here, pandas are not simply a tool used to attract tourists, as they are at so many zoos. The scientists at the base realize that a happy panda is a panda that will breed, and the design of the base has taken all details into consideration. The pandas are given ample space to roam or simply lie around, and it is truly beautiful.
All this comes at a time when the United States faces budget deficits that may lead to reductions in spending on all types of science and research. China, however, has been increasing spending across all fields. Over the past few decades, millions of dollars have been spent to protect pandas alone, and millions more on other animals. This focus on science has been key to a rapidly developing economy and to increasing the influence of China on the global stage. Without a doubt, China has come a long way from the time, not too long ago, when it gave pandas as gifts to other countries as a show of goodwill. During the years China began to open its borders, 23 pandas were give to leaders from nine different countries as part of a policy that was quickly ended when China began to actively protect these animals.
The efforts of the Chinese government stand in stark contrast to those of the United States. This is rooted in a simple phenomenon: The majority of top Chinese government officials hold a degree in science or engineering from a first-tier university, whereas you would be hard pressed to find an American politician who holds an advanced degree in one of these fields. The difference is evident in the policies coming out of the two countries. While American politicians debate the validity of global warming, China invests tens of billions of dollars every year in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.
Over the past few decades, global interest in environmental activism has been steadily increasing. During this time, the giant panda has become a symbol for conservationists across the world. However, the American government has been noticeably absent in the process of protecting these animals and in actively taking steps to protect the environment more generally. This is especially disappointing considering Americans were the first to take pandas out of China and the first Westerners to kill a panda for sport. Now, after millions of years of living in the bamboo forests of southern China, the giant panda is facing extinction.
In the words of the naturalist John Muir, “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” It is currently the United States’ turn to take an active step in protecting the environment and ensuring that ours is not the last generation that ever gets to see a giant panda conceived outside of a test tube.
Glen Meyerowitz is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.