Musings on the American primaries from a zoology student.
At this stage, we have all had our news feed interrupted by the musings of one Donald J. Trump. His campaign to become the leader of the United States has left many concerned and sceptical about the US political system. His run for the Republican nomination has almost completely eclipsed many of the other candidates in this race despite these other candidates having more experience in the political system and despite the fact Trump has incurred the disdain of the entire republican party establishment. Despite the frightening prospect that he may actually win the republican primaries, the more I thought about him I was shocked as to similarities that began to formulate in my head between him and a well-known figure in the field of zoology, the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca).
Interest in Diplomacy
While neither can claim this to be their forte, both have strayed into the world of politics. The Panda holds by far the greater deal of experience between the two. Panda diplomacy in the modern sense is a practice that has been around for almost 50 years when Mao Zedong, the founder of the communist party began using the gifting of a panda as a means of stabilising relations with other countries and building strategic friendships. This practice has continued in recent years centred on nations that supply China with valued resources but is now working on a loan system due to the falling numbers of pandas in the wild with an increased emphasis on ex-situ breeding programmes. While many look at this as an expression of soft power from China that is directly benefiting the conservation of a species, it is interesting to note that the preservation of this species is tied up not only in conservation but also global politics and commerce. It is worth noting that the giant panda has a much better track record in foreign relations, with panda diplomacy attributed to the further softening of tensions between the US and China following President Nixon’s 1972 visit, while many of Trump’s contributions seem to be intent only on straining this relationship.
Another key similarity has to be their ability to command media coverage. The use of media in our culture has pervaded every facet of our life and it is no different when we are dealing with a property mogul intent on trolling the world or a cute 100kg black and white bear. Both have an amazing propensity for producing viral soundbites and videos respectively. The media has cemented Trump’s role as forerunner by supplying constant coverage of his events. This has allowed him to become one of the most recognisable candidates while simultaneously having one of the lowest spend of any candidate on advertising. The Giant panda also makes good use of the media. It is one of the most recognisable animals in the world, it is on the logo of the world wildlife foundation and has spawned a variety of videos that have viewerships numbered in the hundreds of million. This has allowed the Giant panda to become the face of conservation and has given it the perks that come with this. If your interest in this article has peaked here, here is your chance to make a clean getaway with some viral video of pandas here and here.
Trump’s run has been characterised by a large amount of support on the ground but his support from political pundits has been a lot more divisive. Ostracised by Fox news and the National Review, bastions of American republicanism, they have questioned Trump’s validity as a real republican candidate. This situation is mirrored in conservation efforts to save the Giant panda where this issue has lead to a split in opinions within the conservation movement. While there is no denying that there is overwhelming public support available for campaigns that centre themselves around the giant panda, many directly involved in conservation have called for a stop in funding for projects involving the Giant panda due to the distinct lack of progress that has been seen over the years. This has flared up in recent years with naturalist Chris Packham saying that environmentalists need to stop wasting time and money in failed attempts to reestablish animals whose value lies in their roles as “totemic symbols of cuteness”. He has called rather for more time to be spent on issues involving policy change which can lead to the saving of vast swathes more biodiversity than he believes the money toward panda conservation is doing at the moment. 
Many have argued that Trump has brought back the marginalised white minimum wage workers that did not show up in 2012 for Mitt Romney and that this will be a gain for the Republican party when it comes to the presidential election. It seems that many within the Republican party are hoping that this reconnection with a large voter base might allow for this rejuvenated group of voters to provide republicans the edge to the white house. Again I was drawn back to a very similar argument being made in the face of panda conservation. What is known as the umbrella effect in conservation is the process by which money being passed to a flagship species such as the giant panda benefits a group of organisms whose protection is a byproduct of the pandas protection. This is the argument often put forward by those who support investing in panda conservation. A study completed by Li and Pimm in November of last year found that over 96% of the panda habitat coincides with centres of high endemism and that current panda nature reserves offer sanctuary to a large number of all but one of the endemic species that shares a similar habitat distribution as the panda. Not only does this hold sway with the protection of smaller animals with reserves but many argue that rather than removing money from other conservation areas, the use of flagship species like the panda present an opportunity to get the public engaged and support campaigns financially. The stark reality is that people would not be willing to support a campaign revolving around a beetle or insect which may provide a key economic service compared to a cute panda. If the panda was allowed to go extinct it would not necessarily equate to the freeing up of large amounts of money rather it would spell the loss of a highly recognisable animal that serves as a very successfully driver for conservation funding.
While the debate on the continuation of panda conservation, with both its positives and negatives will invariably roll on I think I will be joined in the opinion that if I had to make a choice between these for the future leader of the free world:
It would be safe to say that the white house presidential residence would require a distinct change of habitat.