05/10/2012 12:34 BST | Updated 05/12/2012 05:12 GMT

The Panda: Is This Goodbye?

Dear Giant Panda,

Please understand that this is nothing personal.

Giant pandas are charismatic, fascinating creatures. From a biological perspective, I find them so very interesting. I really like them. And yet, I think it may be the time to let them drift off into extinction or, at the very least, reconsider our approach to their conservation. I do not say this lightly.

The panda has some sort of monochrome charisma which has grabbed our attention. Its greatest evolutionary asset has been that it looks like a teddy. It is iconic and has raised the profile of wildlife the world over. The money its persona raises contributes to a myriad of other worthwhile projects and for this I am grateful. But to care overly about it because of its image, amounts to the cult of celebrity within the conservation movement. I would prefer that we better educate ourselves on the plight of the natural world, rather than patronise by tugging on heart strings. If we pander to such emotional irrationality then we risk making the wrong choices when we are faced with some tough decisions. And we are facing some tough decisions. To protect the panda at the expense of other species is to greatly underestimate the plight of global wildlife.

We are presiding over the biggest mass extinction since the time of the dinosaurs. It is hard to believe that we are as lethal as a meteor, but we are. That is the scale of the problem and, to my mind, this is what should be the primary concern of conservation.

Everyday somewhere between 100 and 200 species go extinct. In many cases these are species that we have never even seen or documented. This is a loss in itself, but it may be useful to view it in more tangible and practical terms. With these species will die cures for disease that are hidden within the biochemistry of their cells, new food sources from exotic and undiscovered crops, new materials and textiles, so much unstudied and unknown potential. The biological world is one of our greatest assets. A study by the United Nations in 2008 suggested that the destruction of the Earth's natural resources was costing us trillions of dollars each year. They estimate that 40% of the global economy is based on biological products and processes. Biodiversity loss, it says, is becoming a greater concern for business than international terrorism.

In light of this, we must prioritise. It is just a question of how best to use conservation money. It is a very limited pot and we have to focus on where we get most biology for our buck.

In general, though there are exceptions, it is better to take a habitat-based rather than species-based approach to conservation. If we look after their environment, the species that live there tend to look after themselves. This, I am pleased to say, is the focus of much panda conservation; it is its best hope. With this approach, many other species, including the red panda and the golden monkey, are also being saved by association. I really hope it works, but if it does not, it will be unwise to continue to throw good money after bad on what might be a lost cause. I know that this sounds callous, but if we are not surgical in our thinking, we risk losing so much more.

My dear Giant Panda, I sincerely wish you the best of luck. If you go, I will miss you, but I think that we should see other species.

As part of Biology Week 2012, the Society of Biology is organising a public debate on 'Do we need pandas?'. You can vote in the 'Should we save the panda?' poll, and join the online debate. I am one of the panellists.