Are Panda Captive-Breeding Programs Worth The Cost?

Panda at the San Diego Zoo.  Photo by Simone M. Scully

Panda at the San Diego Zoo. Photo by Simone M. Scully

When there are less than 1600 pandas left in the wild, a new baby being born is big news.  The announcement even makes the news crawlers in Times Square and every major news network airs clips from the live panda cams, showing Washington DC’s Mei Xiang cradling her cute little newborn. But what is not always known is that the little cub comes with a hefty bill for the Smithsonian National Zoo.  According to National Geographic, caring for one giant panda will cost a zoo approximately 2.6 million dollars a year.  With a cub, the bill rises to over three million, since these little creatures are born 1/900th the size of their mother and are extremely vulnerable.  When twins are born, as they were this July at the Atlanta Zoo, it can cost as much as four million. Twins rarely survive in the wild, and zoos require incubators to keep both alive.  Even getting female pandas pregnant can be difficult and expensive.  Mei Xiang was impregnated via artificial insemination after she has failed repeatedly to breed naturally.

As a result, every time a new cub is born, critics crawl out of the woodwork arguing these captive-breeding programs need to end.

Their arguments might seem like they make sense.  Yes, it is true that pandas receive more attention and funding than any other endangered species.  Yes, it is true that the goal of panda captive-breeding programs is to increase the bear’s population, not cause “panda-monium” and boost zoo ticket prices.  Yes, it is true that the current goal to re-introduce one panda a year back into the wild is unlikely to increase the wild panda population.  Yes, so far there have only been two attempted reintroductions – not nearly enough to be effective – and one ended with the panda, Xiang Xiang, being beaten up and killed by wild males in 2007.

But let’s not forget why are giant pandas endangered in the first place.  Humans have encroached on their habitat, hindering the bears’ access to bamboo and cut up their forests with roads, railroads and logging.  As a result, populations have been isolated, preventing their access to mates.  If we are responsible for the species’ decline, doesn’t that also mean we are responsible for the cost in trying to repair the problem we created?

Pandas receive considerable public attention for being cute but all this attention isn’t a bad thing. It makes people care.  It makes them want to help.  Without this attention, it’s likely that these animals wouldn’t be around today.   Some conservationists, such as University of Colorado’s Marc Bekoff, have argued that panda conservation funds should go to keeping pandas out of the public eye in wild habitat refuges, but if that were to happen, how soon would it be before funds stopped coming in to protect them?  It is far more likely that the pandas would become “out of sight and out of mind.”  After all, isn’t that how they got into their predicament in the first place?  The Chinese government has protected 61 percent of the panda’s habitat in reserves but it is unlikely that these reserves would exist in such high numbers without the animal’s public presence.

In addition, the more baby pandas born in zoos, the more need there will be to provide them with additional bamboo forest homes.  Hopefully, this will give additional incentive for Chinese officials to protect more panda habitat in reserves, as well as raise more funds for additional conservation programs.

Some species are not as lucky as pandas when it comes to rising awareness.  Some don’t get captive-breeding programs.  Some species don’t even exist in the wild.  However, that doesn’t mean we stop protecting the panda to be “fair.”  It just means we try to amp up awareness about wildlife conservation as a whole.  There are clever ways to make the public care and help protect less cute and cuddly animals.  The Ugly Animal Preservation Society’s recent contest to vote for the ugliest animal – the deep-sea blobfish – is a clear example of an effective way of doing this.  In addition, pandas can draw attention to threats that affect all endangered species with their struggle for survival.  They are already the logo for the World Wildlife Foundation.  They can be symbols for the wildlife conservation movement.

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