Are pandas white elephants?

Are pandas white elephants?

Like Japanese ceramics, top-end Mini Coopers and myself, pandas are cute but terribly expensive.
Giant pandas currently hold the record for being the world’s most expensive animal to keep in captivity.[1] Technically the property of the Chinese government, zoos must pay $1 million a year to rent out the pandas, who are usually loaned in pairs over a 10-year period.[2]
The rental contract also stipulates that zoos make every effort to breed the endangered species. But for any new cub that is born, zoos have to make a one-off payment to the Chinese government of $600,000, and send the cub back to China before it turns three. Should one die because of human error, zoos must pay $500,000.[3]
Other substantial upfront costs include outlays for research, import permits and construction of new exhibits to house the bears. Toronto Zoo and Adelaide Zoo have each spent $14.5 million and $10.3 million respectively on new enclosures.[4]
And don’t forget the maintenance expenses. Pandas can go through 30 kilograms of bamboo a day – which must be freshly cut. Edinburgh Zoo spends over £100,000 a year to import fresh shoots from France, a cost which has risen from £70,000 a year in 2011, when they first received Tian Tian and Yang Guang.[3] Other zoos in Berlin, San Diego and Washington DC have instead turned to home gardeners to supplement their bamboo supply.[4]
Yet despite being the poster child for international wildlife conservation, cute pandas are not guaranteed cash cows. After the first rush to see the new pandas, many zoos experience a return to normal attendance after the initial honeymoon period.[2]
In fact, many zoos do not manage to break even. Zoos in Washington DC, Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego collectively spent $33 million more on pandas than they received in revenue from ticket sales to see them.[2] Adelaide Zoo will be in debt for a decade after borrowing $6.7 million to bring pandas to Australia.[5]


But have panda conservation programs been worth the money?
Despite being notoriously hard to breed, scientists have been able to increase the number of pandas in captivity to 520, up from 236 ten years ago. In 2016, the panda was downgraded from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Vulnerable’ on the global list of species at risk of extinction, after a 17 per cent rise in population in the decade before 2014.[6]
But raising pandas in captivity does little to bolster wild populations. Since 1983, only ten captive pandas have been released into the wild.[3] Only two of them are still alive – six were recaptured after experiencing weight loss, one was killed by wild pandas and another died of unknown causes. Kati Loeffler, a former vet for a panda research base in Chengdu, says pandas who have grown in human-dominated environments are “not normal pandas” and are “treated to make reproductive rabbits of them.”[3]


So why has so much money been put specifically into panda conservation?
To put it simply, giant pandas are the rockstars of the captive animal world. As Chris Packham puts it, pandas are a “charismatic megafauna” – they are fluffy, adorable and very good at appealing to people’s emotional sides.[1] No offence to the Lord Howe Stick Insect, but pandas, along with lions, tigers and elephants, are reliable ‘marquee’ species that attract people to zoos on a Saturday afternoon.
The panda has been the logo of the WWF since its inception in 1961. As one of its ‘flagship species’, WWF China claims the panda’s star quality helps to promote ideals about environmental conservation to the general public and raise money for conservation programs and policies.[7]
But natural charm is not the only reason China has invested so much into its pandas. Researcher for the World Resources Institute, Kathleen Buckingham suggests that the panda loans are all part of a new phase in Chinese diplomacy.
Positioned both as a cultural icon of China and a symbol of international conservation, pandas have been integrated into China’s soft power strategy. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Macau all received pandas after signing trade deals. The loan to Edinburgh Zoo coincided with agreements to double Scotland’s salmon production, while negotiations for Australian uranium, oil and minerals resulted in a loan of panda pairs to Adelaide Zoo.[4]
Whether for good or for bad, the outsized publicity on the panda has made the panda a political animal, used by conservationists to raise money, by China to strengthen relationships and also by others to judge China on its environmental commitments. If China were to neglect its pandas, the country would undeniably be roundly criticised.


Where to from here?
The Chinese government has put a lot of effort into slowing habitat degradation by banning logging and incentivising farmers to grow more trees. This has resulted in an additional 3 million hectares of forest from 2000 to 2010.[6] The panda is also one of the few animals in the world whose habitat was able to gain a UNESCO World Heritage designation.
There has also been a move away from single-species conservation towards a ‘ecosystem approach’, which uses modelling focused on optimising biodiversity and cost-effectiveness.
In New Zealand and New South Wales, an algorithmic model called the Project Prioritisation Protocol is used to determine which endangered species would benefit most from conservation efforts. The model assesses a species’ value and includes two previously ignored criteria: the cost of managing the species and the likelihood a conservation program would succeed.[8] The United States announced this year it would also consider a similar approach.[9]
However, this process is flawed. Cost-effectiveness algorithms may be used as a way to justify budget cuts to animal conservation. Species that just miss the cut could be condemned to extinction. And despite economic modelling, fluffy animals are still the ones who will receive the most private funding.[10]
It’s not just about survival of the fittest anymore – you’ve got to be cute as well.



[1] Packham, Chris. 2013. Express. 21 Apr.

[2] Cohn, D’Vera. 2005. Washington Post. 7 Aug.

[3] Vidal, John. 2014. The Guardian. 14 Sep.

[4] Buckhingham, Kathleen. 2013. “Diplomats and Refugees: Panda Diplomacy, Soft “Cuddly” Power, and the New Trajectory in Panda Conservation.” Environmental Practice 15 (3): 262-270.

[5] Schultz-Byard, Noah. 2011. ABC News Adelaide. 21 Jun.

[6] ICUN. 2017.

[7] China, WWF. 2015.

[8] Dell’Amore, Christine. 2013. National Geographic. 16 Dec.

[9] Bernstein, Sharon. 2017. Scientific American. 19 Jun.

[10] Gartry, Laura. 2016. ABC News. 7 Mar.


Image: George Lu, 2011 ‘Panda in China’.