Yes, they might get more conservation money than some other, less cute animals, and perhaps that isn’t entirely fair. And sure, they don’t do the best job of staying alive by themselves, what with their insistence on eating non-nutritious bamboo and difficulties mating.

But these animals are worth preserving, even with the high costs of their medical care. They’re more than just a pretty face, playing an essential ecological role by distributing bamboo seeds throughout the forest. Plus, as Popular Science points out, they act a bit like the British royal family of the animal kingdom, attracting tourism money to zoos and interest in animal welfare. (The British royal family do this for Britain rather than zoos and animal welfare, but you get the point.)

Most importantly, these tubby, furry creatures exude playfulness and bring joy to all but the coldest of hearts. Some things, like a Leonardo da Vinci painting or a species of black-and-white, cuddly bear, are worth preserving not for any utilitarian reason, but because they’re intrinsically wonderful. They’re valuable in their own right, rather than for some practical purpose. Anyone with a soul would mourn the day these beautiful creatures die out, and rightly so. Now, I’ll let pandas have the final word:

Pandas are really, truly the worst

Elijah Wolfson:

Have you ever heard of the yellow-faced bee? How about the mangrove-dwelling crab? Or the snake-river salmon?

No? None of them?

It might have something to do with the fact that none are even remotely as cuddly as the panda bear. And yet, these are three examples of animals that are not only endangered (that’s a more pressing classification than the panda’s current status), but, unlike the panda, are keystone animals for their ecosystems. That means we don’t lose just the bees and crabs and salmon—we lose the dozens of other animal and plant species that rely on them to survive.

And let’s be clear: Pandas are dumb. Panda bears are omnivores who are basically carnivores, biologically speaking —their “digestive system is more similar to that of a carnivore than an herbivore, and so much of what is eaten is passed as waste,” according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. And yet, for some reason, they have decided not to eat meat and consume only bamboo. To make matters worse, they can’t actually survive by eating normal amounts of bamboo. As the Smithsonian notes, because their stomachs aren’t designed to digest plants, pandas get almost no nutrients out of bamboo before they pass through their systems as waste. So pandas have to eat tons and tons of the plant just to stay alive—so much bamboo that we humans have to go out and plant extra bamboo for them to eat cause they’ve already housed everything that grows naturally. In the meanwhile, you know what else lives in their habitat? Toads, newts, and frogs; many, many birds far smaller than a bear; field mice, shrews, squirrels, voles, hares, moles, weasels, monkeys, and civets; and snakes, turtles, and fish. This is not the Hunger Games.

And yet pandas choose not to eat any of those things, and as a result can’t get the nutrients they need unless we feed them. I can think of maybe one or two animals like that (yes, cats and dogs), but both are that way specifically because we domesticated them.

I don’t want to come off as a curmudgeonly pragmatist; I am in full agreement with my colleague Olivia’s assertion that “some things are worth preserving not for any utilitarian reason, but because they’re intrinsically wonderful.” But what if you could have both? I submit to you that all of the world’s goodwill towards panda bears could very easily be shifted onto sea otters, which are equally adorable, but also serve an essential ecological purpose in their Pacific Ocean habitat.

I get that animal conservation is not a zero-sum game in theory. But sadly, it is a zero-sum game in practice, because we only have so many resources to fund animal conservation. Given that reality, I think pandas should get to the back of the line, far behind the yellow-faced bees, the mangrove-dwelling crabs, the snake-river salmon, the sea otter, the gopher tortoise, the tiger shark, the prairie dog, the ivory tree coral, and so many more.

I think my colleague Olivia is right to draw the connection between pandas and the UK royal family. Both serve as propaganda designed to uphold an ideal of their respective governments, and both end up costing the taxpayers in those countries a fortune. In the UK, the annual cost of the monarchy (pdf) is £345 million ($457 million).

That said, compared to royals, pandas are a relative bargain. China committed $1.5 billion this past March to build a massive panda bear sanctuary—but that’s more or less a one-time cost. Three years of Harry and Meghan, or decades of pandas? Maybe they don’t need to die, after all.

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