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Panda expert urges conservation through action at home

Tian Tian, a giant panda at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., eats bamboo. Bill McShea, a large mammal ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, studies bears like Tian Tian and works on conservation efforts to ensure their survival in the wild. Courtesy Photo/Connor Mallon, Smithsonian's National Zoo (Buy photo)

Bill McShea (Buy photo)

By Katie Demeria

Bill McShea is known as "the panda guy" but he is not overly fond of pandas.

McShea is a large mammal ecologist who has been working at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal since 1986. He is a top panda expert, and has spent a large amount of time in China focusing on giant pandas.

McShea recently gave a TED talk in which he explained that pandas are, in fact, average bears. As an ecologist, he has no greater love for them than any other animal. But as he says in his talk, the average person's love for them is saving the world.

The panda's popularity has generated a great deal of money that has allowed for increased conservation in China, he said, which ultimately helps other animals.

But conservation, McShea said in a recent interview, is not as simple as protecting an animal in a distant country. Action can -- and should -- be taken at home, and could make a significant difference in other parts of the world.

"I think people in this area think that conservation is about pandas and tigers and elephants. But conservation is about everything," he said. "One action is not going to save anything, it's not one thing that's going to turn this world around."

"Nobody ever says, 'I wish tigers would go extinct,'" he added. "But they don't realize that everything they do somehow impacts the rest of the world."

Though McShea is a leading panda expert, he said the amount of time he spends directly interacting with the bears is "an instant in time." The majority of his time is spent talking to people.

During his most recent trip to China, he worked on a project involving corridors meant to allow pandas to access designated parks that are isolated from each other. Right now it is unclear whether or not the bears are using the corridors.

That work has largely to do with interacting with people.

The focus of ecology has changed since he initially studied it, McShea said. Originally, ecologists would study animals just for the sake of studying them. Now it has become conservation oriented because those animals are declining rapidly. Understanding their stories is required so the world can be set up in such a way that they are maintained.

"But we shouldn't be just worrying about the pandas," he said. "You should be conserving the forests and clean water and soil here at home, and there are species here in this state that need our help, too."

"We're all connected to each other, and that's a message you get in kindergarten, and you put it aside, but ecologists deal with that all the time," he said.

The shift in ecology has allowed researchers to have a broader perspective of the world -- and McShea encouraged other people to have the same perspective.

"They may have never personally punched a panda in the nose, but the gasoline they use for their car and the heating oil they use for their house and the clothes they wear -- everything they do impacts the world in the same way," he said.

View McShea's TED Talk at http://tiny.cc/fr1qix.

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