Few would dispute that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF; previously known as the World Wildlife Fund) is wrong in their assertion of being “the world’s leading independent conservation body” or that their aim to conserve “priority” places and species is anything short of laudable and, perhaps, even ecologically essential. But why the panda? Why has the panda been the logo since the organisation was founded with the best of intentions in 1961? The WWF itself tells us that according to the original designer, WWF founder Sir Peter Scott, the logo needed an animal that was “beautiful”, “endangered” and had “appealing qualities”. That an animal is beautiful or appealing is a dangerous rationale for wanting to conserve it; it relies on aesthetic human judgements rather than appreciation of the ecological pressures under which the world suffers. We shall return to this point and the consequences thereof below.

There is no doubt the panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is threatened by extinction, nor that the threat is to a large degree of human origin—mainly due to habitat destruction and poaching. The principal concern with using the giant panda as the logo for so important a cause is that the panda ought not to be prevented from going extinct.

The evolution of the panda has followed an interesting biological path, to suit its environment. As we know, ‘fittest’ in evolutionary terms does not mean ‘optimal’ but rather something more like ‘good enough for now’. What was ‘good enough’ for the panda in an earlier era is insufficient now. Humans have negatively affected the natural habitat of the panda, undoubtedly, but the reality is that pandas fit so precariously into their environment in the first place that entirely natural environmental change would have effected the same result.

A few facts will suffice to explain the natural fragility of the panda as a species. Principally, the panda is not adept at reproduction: short, annual oestrous periods, single offspring, and high dependency of the infant on the mother. Other species balance such limitations with benefits, as for example the human, whose offspring is even more dependent on the parent or parents and for longer. The pay-off, however, is improved and superior brain development. Moreover, although anatomically and genetically a carnivore, the panda subsists almost entirely upon bamboo; the body of the panda is of limited fitness to digest plant matter and so must eat constantly while deriving but little nutrition or energy from its diet. The panda’s fitness to survive can only be described, generously, as being of the ‘good enough for now’ variety.

So, let us consider the purpose of the WWF logo. That the panda is cute and beloved seems evident from the appeal of the animal in zoos and popular culture. That the choice of this animal for the logo makes sound business sense is also clear. But it did not evolve to be cute. Cuteness is not a Darwinian survival strategy but a subjective human reaction. Not only is this an insufficient reason for wanting to conserve this animal, it is actually dangerously consistent with a historical human practice of looking at the world too narrowly, seeing only utility or aesthetics rather than a holistic ecology. The panda logo blinds us to the broader demands of conservation.

What then are the consequences of the extinction of the panda? It would represent yet another human failure with respect to the state of our planet. However, from an ecological point of view, the removal of the panda from the local environment would have no discernible impact. Some may argue that the panda draws in those who are as yet ignorant of the nature of conservation and that through the panda such people become aware and committed. Perhaps. But the panda logo does not tell the truth of the responsibility we have. It is not the unfit animals we should concern ourselves with, but those animals which are so supremely well-fitted to their environment that they could only become extinct due to human action. Indeed, many such animals are indicators of rampant damage resulting from human agency and—depending on the role of such animals—can have dramatic consequences on their ecology. The WWF would better serve their cause with a logo that drew an ecological rather than aesthetic attention to such animals—animals such as the camel, the shark, the cockroach. These creatures are wonderful examples of biological fitness or even, as it were, deservedness to survive. They will continue to thrive as long as they are not subjected to human interference. The giant panda, for all its cuteness, is not a “priority” species but an evolutionary dead-end just a few bad bamboo crops away from extinction.


Detail from Buffon’s Celebrated Cockroach Exterminator [advertisement], 1876. Source: Victorian Patents Office Copyright Collection, State Library of Victoria (H96.160/2243). Buffon is not thought to have made a Celebrated Panda Exterminator as demand was not sufficient.