I don’t like pandas, never have, in terms of both cuteness and physical prowess – I’m a polar bear guy. Funny rants about how stupid pandas are actually reveal a great deal about how environmentalism has—and needs—to put economic realities over emotional responses. Before going into what a bad investment saving pandas are, let me indulge for just a second on just how much of a genetic cul-de-sac pandas are. Genetically, only their cuteness to humans keeps them from going extinct, they need 84 pounds (38 kilograms) a day of nutritionally empty bamboo since mysteriously switching from being carnivores to herbivores. In addition to adopting a nutritionally suspect diet, they’ve also apparently adopted asexuality as well. Getting giant pandas to mate seems to require a higher power. Pandas have a 10% chance of conceiving after years of expensive artificial insemination. They just can’t put down the green shoot to get it on themselves.
In the early days of environmentalism, panda’s joined whales and tigers as high profile animals for preservation and it was decided that the best way to save the panda was to breed them in captivity to boost their numbers, keep up a high public profile, and to later release them into the wild. The giant panda became a diva. Through cuteness alone since the 1960s it has becoming the logo of the WWF, a symbol of détente in the Cold War, a Kungfu movie star, an Olympic mascot, and a chain of restaurants (Panda Express). The strategy has been shockingly expensive for the investment, and influential naturalists like Britain’s Chris Packham have bravely challenged the status quo, saying that panda’s helped kick start the environmental movement, but aren’t a good value.
Raising pandas in captivity costs a fortune and hasn’t been fruitful. Although costs vary from zoo to zoo, in the US it costs about $1 million a year just to lease one panda couple for one year from China. According to the Washington Post, this cost excludes the cost of the panda research mandatory to obtain an import permit, the first-rate exhibits, basic care, and a ton of bamboo. Yes, pandas do bring in a lot of visitors and local pride, but the Post article also notes that in the four US zoos that host pandas have lost a combined $33 million dollars on their pandas between 2000 and 2003 alone– five times the cost of elephants, the second most expensive animal to keep in captivity. For all these expenditures and research, there are only 239 living in captivity in China and 27 living abroad with an estimated 1700 or so in the wild. Not a good return on investment.
Panda habitat preservation, especially in Sichuan Province, is a better investment. In this case, money lavished on giant pandas trickles down to other threatened species including the snow leopard (badass), the python-looking clouded leopard (super badass), and the red panda (meh); as well as the exceptionally diverse flora and mountain landscapes. But habitat preservation is still very expensive and tenuous. According to a 2005 article by biodiversity advocate Mongabay, the estimated cost of saving one giant panda in the wild is still high at approximately US$617,000 whereas the highest value for a human life in China is about US$64,000 and for all its proclaimed conservation efforts and aforementioned panda research fees, new Chinese highways segment giant panda habitats weakening preservation. In speeches, in Chinese speeches, it’s save the giant panda, but in reality it’s four legs bad, four wheels good, eighteen wheels best.
If we’re serious about mitigating a 6th Global Extinction and maintaining biodiversity, we need to put our money to better use than saving cute dead-enders like the indulgent giant panda and into biodiversity hotspots where we can get more biological bang for the buck. If panda’s do go extinct, it might not mean that environmentalists have given up it means that we’ve wised up. Oh, for you slimy and scaly endangered species a word of advice: “get real cute real quick”.
[source image: Flickr user idleformat]