Save China’s pandas by raising a virtual one? Mobile game slammed for being too simplistic

Environmentalist points out flaws in Weibo game’s premise to help preserve nation’s pandas by planting a bamboo tree in exchange for players’ time

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 February, 2018, 9:33pm

A game played on social media in China billed as helping to preserve the nation’s giant pandas has been criticised by an environmentalist.

The game, Panda Guardians, allows players on the social media platform Weibo to raise a “virtual panda” and after amassing a set number of points a government-backed environmental group will plant a real bamboo tree in the Qinling mountain range in Shaanxi province, an important region for China’s remaining wild pandas.

However, Diao Kunpeng, who specialises in panda conservation at the Chinese NGO Shanshui, said it was simplistic to suggest that merely planting bamboo would help ensure pandas’ survival and questioned the game’s usefulness.

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Since it was launched in mid-December, its account on Weibo has gained more than 1.7 million followers, with its posts read over a million times a day.

The involvement of the Chinese pop boy band TFBoys, who have a huge following on Weibo, has also helped attract hundreds of thousands of young people to play.

Many other celebrities have also taken part, including the Taiwanese actress Ruby Lin.

The group behind the game is the China Green Foundation, an environmental organisation backed by the government’s State Forestry Administration.

The project aims to improve the natural habitat of wild pandas, according to an advertising video for the project. There are 345 pandas in the Qinling region, it said.

Environmentalist Diao said the major issue affecting panda numbers was the threat posed to their habitat by human activity, meaning areas where the animals are able to roam are getting increasingly small.

“Because they already started the project and wouldn’t change the bamboo planting premise, I suggested they grow it in corridor areas – areas with little vegetation due to human intervention between two habitats where no panda is living any more, so that the fragmented habitats can be repaired to some extent,” Diao said.

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Some players echoed Diao’s view.

“No one who studies panda conservation has ever said that a lack of bamboo is the reason for concern, especially in Qinling, where there is in fact plenty of bamboo,” wrote one Weibo user, who claimed to have conducted field research on pandas in the past.

China Green Foundation did not respond requests for comment from the South China Morning Post, but the promotional video suggested that Diao’s advice on how to plant bamboo to aid panda numbers would be heeded.

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Many players, however, say the game plays a useful role in raising conservation awareness.

“Pandas are our national treasure and I’m helping improve their living condition by doing this and at the same time, I’m supporting my idol,” said 20-year-old He Jingyi, a Shanghai college student who is a fan of Wang Junkai, a member of the boy band.

“Even if growing bamboo is not the major solution for [helping] pandas, it’s still good to have more vegetation and it’s also meaningful in that players improve their awareness of panda conservation,” she said.