Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Interview: Sarah Bexell on the giant panda

“Just knowing giant pandas are part of our amazing planet is important for our psychological as well as physical health,” says Sarah Bexell. 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.


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

Bexell: 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. Some subadults (pandas between infancy and sexual maturity) love to play and be close to others, while some prefer to be alone more of the time. But I think one of my favorite qualities is their peacefulness. They really like quiet and calm and to be left alone in safety and serenity.


DU Today: 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?

Bexell: 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.

With the new leadership of China considering lifting the one-child policy, the future for giant pandas is very grim. And the rise in economic power in China is a deadly force against giant pandas. Add to that global demands for mineral and natural resources, and we have our work cut out for us. It is important for people outside of China not to think of this as a China problem. Where was the shirt on your back made? Your iPod?

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.


DU Today: Your book takes readers deep inside the panda conservation campaign in China. Why does the Chinese government — which faces so many environmental challenges — consider this important?

 Bexell: The Chinese government knows that giant pandas are beloved by people all over the world. They are keenly aware of their universal appeal. They also need this “green” story to feel proud of. The government has invested millions, if not billions, in the conservation of giant pandas, through captive breeding centers and research and nature reserves. They are invested in saving their national treasure. Just as if the U.S. were to lose our national treasure, bald eagles, which we almost did, it would be a huge source of shame.

With giant pandas as the symbol for conservation the world over, just think how damaging it would be to every citizen of the planet if we could not hold back our collective shortsightedness to save the one species we all profess to love.


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

Bexell: 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.


DU Today: Why is the panda’s survival important for those of us in, say, Denver?

Bexell: Just knowing giant pandas are part of our amazing planet is important for our psychological as well as physical health. All animals are beautiful — some you may need to learn a little more about to appreciate — and make our world beautiful and healthy and interesting.

Humans may be the only exception to this. Think about it. What do we do to make the Earth more beautiful? Other than some architecture and artwork that we create only for ourselves, we only destroy our planet and leave toxins and nonbiodegradables in our wake. Every species on Earth has an important job to do, whether it be pollination, seed dispersal, disease control, keeping other species’ populations at healthy levels, cleansing of water … the list goes on.

Giant pandas could be thought of as symbolic. If they were gone, it would be one more sign that our life-support system is in jeopardy, and we would be just a little lonelier.


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

Bexell: 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.

When I started in this career, I had faith in humanity — faith that we were good creatures who do not want to cause so much harm, so many extinctions. Sadly, I have so far been disproven. Of course, not only technological fixes have been implemented. Nature preserves have popped up globally, and we must be thankful for those. But they are too few, and many are what we call “paper parks” — protected by a law on paper somewhere but still cleared of all the species deemed useful to humans. And what will happen to those tiny parcels of land or sea if the human population really does reach 9 billion?

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.


DU Today: After years of working on the panda’s behalf, are you optimistic about its future?

Bexell: No, and this also makes me unpopular. But if we don’t tell the truth, no one will get off their butts and do anything. As I mentioned earlier, the answers are exquisitely clear: There are too many of us, and we are too greedy and selfish. We need to secure an understanding of our own ecology, human ecology, and ground our worldviews and lifestyles in reality and compassion, not bling and technology and cruelty.

This is possible, and I see glimmers of hope in young people. But if the older generations do not take it upon themselves to be better role models and teachers, we can kiss giant pandas goodbye, as well as very likely dooming the future of today’s children.


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