I recently received an email from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) requesting help in their ongoing effort to save the giant panda. The request asked me to help them provide relief in the wake of the earthquake in China for the "estimated 1,600 wild pandas living in the surrounding areas" whose fate is as yet unknown.
The danger to human life from earthquakes is a result of the relatively unstable and high structures that humans construct. The vast majority of deaths and injuries from an earthquake occur due to the collapse of buildings, falling debris or ejected shrapnel from these occurrences. The number of deaths that occur afterwards are the result of infrastructure damage, causing disease, interruptions to vital services such as water, electricity and gas and sociopathic effects such as breakdowns in law and order. On the other hand, deaths resulting from ground movement alone are extremely rare.
Natural structures such as mountains and trees have a natural stability far greater than typical man made structures such as houses or buildings. Earthquakes generally do not affect them. Furthermore, in a natural environment, there are few objects that will be thrown around in a potentially hazardous manner; twigs, leaves and even falling branches do not pose the same danger that falling concrete and flying glass do, to say nothing of people who may be above the ground floor in a building that collapses. Pandas, in their natural environment, are likely to be totally unperturbed by a little shaking of their tree in the event of even a major earthquake. Try shaking a squirrel or cat out of a tree to demonstrate just how hard it is to make an animal fall. Also bear in mind that even a major earthquake will result in little more than a light rustling movement which animals will be accustomed to given that strong winds cause far more violent shaking far more frequently.
For these reasons is should be apparent that earthquakes pose little to no threat to animals and humans living out of built up areas due to the absence of those factors that make an earthquake dangerous in the first place. Thus, there is no causal link between the Chinese earthquake and an increased need to provide support for pandas in the wild. In the email I received, one of the things that donations would be spent on was "reconstruction of panda nature reserves and the communities living within them". Unless the WWF has spent the last 30 years constructing high rise condominiums for wild pandas, there is no need for habitat reconstruction. Hills, trees and bamboo can survive earthquakes juts fine, and have been for several millennia. I can understand the potential need within communities in the area, and if that is what the donations are needed for, then why not just say that rather than attempting to tie the two together? The only conclusion that I can come to, given the level of misdirection in the email, is that the WWF was intentionally seeking to maximise donations by manipulating the emotional response that people have both to tragedy and fluffy black and white bears.
Using the human tragedy in China from the recent earthquake to foster sympathy for a cause is reprehensible and immoral, regardless how worthy a cause it may be. It is a shameful abuse of the good nature of the WWF's supporters. While I agree with the mission of the WWF and am greatly sympathetic to their cause, I find this emotional bandwagoning to be disgusting. In the pursuit of philanthropy and charity, one should adhere to the highest standards of intellectual honesty and integrity, even where rallying support may be otherwise difficult. It is self defeating to fight the inequities and ills of this world by spreading misinformation and dishonesty, as it is simply trading one social pathology for another.
I find it greatly disappointing that nobody at the WWF, a long running and well respected organisation, is able to make this distinction and restrain the fundraising writers from getting overzealous in their desire to secure donations, allowing truth and honesty get bruised in the process. For what it's worth, I would like to rebuke the WWF for engaging in such an egregious hijacking of the misery being suffered by the Chinese affected by the earthquake, and would request that for this breach of intellectual honesty they apologise both to the Chinese people as well as to me for attempting to lead me under the banner of misdirection.