Academics and Research

Interview: Sarah Bexell on the giant panda

“They are the most peaceful species I have ever had the opportunity to work for,” Sarah Bexell says of the giant panda. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Conservationist Sarah Bexell serves as scholar-in-residence at the Graduate School of Social Work’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection. She also is director of conservation education at China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where she works with DU social work students to staff an education program that highlights the connection between human and animal welfare. Bexell’s new book, “Giant Pandas: Born Survivors” (Penguin Books, 2013), is co-authored with Zhang Zhihe, one of China’s leading giant panda experts.


Q: You’ve spent a lot of time around pandas. Are they as lovable as their press would suggest?

A: Absolutely. They are the most peaceful species I have ever had the opportunity to work for. They are amazing mothers and have wonderful, peaceful and stoic personalities. Each individual has his or her own personality, just like we do. Some are goofy and love to play and get dirty. Some are fastidious and are always clean. One of my favorite qualities is their peacefulness. They really like quiet and calm and to be left alone in safety and serenity.


Q: For decades, the panda has served as the poster child for endangered species conservation. And your book identifies the panda as a “born survivor.” Is it too soon to consider the panda a success story for conservationists?

A: Much too soon. I fear we never will be able to call our work for them a success story. None of the barriers to their continued existence has been lifted. The reason giant pandas are teetering on the brink of extinction is because of the human population explosion and our consumption patterns. The reference to giant pandas as born survivors refers to their extremely long history on Earth, with a lineage of at least 8 million years. They are considered a “living fossil,” and their adaptation strategies have allowed them to persist for far longer than most species. The only reason for their decline today is our species, giving us a great moral imperative to save room for them.


Q: You make a link, in your book, to human consumption habits and the fate of endangered animals like the panda. What’s the connection?

A: Every single thing that humans consume takes resources away from other animals. This is a reality that all people need to understand and take personal responsibility for. This, coupled with the exponential growth of our numbers, creates a destructive force. We dominate the planet with our numbers and our taking of resources. From a pencil to a hamburger to cars and homes, all take untold resources to create — resources that other animals and plants depend on as well.


Q: What can conservationists learn from the panda’s survival story?

A: That so far we have taken mostly wrong turns in conservation work. I am making myself slightly unpopular, but we need to get out of our labs and back into the forest, rivers, seas and lakes. Using technology — breeding programs, for example — puts us in a holding pattern at best. It is a sexy way to try to “save” or resurrect species, but the only way to save them is to save their native homes. Conservation professionals did not make mistakes; we trusted humans would save space. We didn’t realize how bad it could get. Decades of reality are now forcing us to come through with stronger strategies. Humans as a species are now threatened by our own behavior. We need to focus all our efforts on curbing the human population, utilizing only what we need from Mother Earth, and leaving every ounce of untouched habitat untouched.

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