Pandas are fluffy, fat and commonly accepted as the flagship species of conservation efforts the world over. They’re also by far the most expensive animal to care for in captivity, with their finicky eating and mating habits costing zoos and private habitats as much as five times more than elephants. Giant pandas barely mate, only eat food that they are evolutionarily maladapted to consume and are otherwise ridiculously resource-intensive creatures. Chris Packham, world renowned conservationist, has called pandas “possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half century.” He’s also said, somewhat ridiculously, that he “would eat the last panda” if it meant we could spend conservation money on other species and habitats.
The San Diego Zoo has spent over $45 million on their panda program since 1996. The Washington Zoo spends about $2.6 million per year, with only three pandas in their program, meaning the zoo spends nearly $90,000 per year on each of their pandas. The Scientific American estimated that for just $10,000 per year each we could save all of the world’s remaining wild tigers, a more severely endangered species.
We could make significant strides towards rescuing four or five separate species for the cost of the giant panda—more, if ecologists focus on more efficient conservation methods like habitat preservation over selecting individual species to rescue. Every time an at-risk species dies out, we have to remember that there’s a chance we could have saved it if we spent money efficiently, rather than on an especially clumsy species of bear.
It’s common for panda protectors to argue that the cuddly public image of the panda assists in fundraising efforts for all animals, and to some extent this is true. In theory, it’s easier to protect the Titicaca water frog (also known as the scrotum frog) by slapping a photo of the much less scrotum-y panda onto an ecology fundraiser, and then using some of that money to preserve its habitat. But in practice, far more money is spent on pandas than could ever be recouped by their fundraising contributions for other animals. Even zoos, which put enormous emphasis on marketing and attention-grabbing schemes for their animals, almost never make as much money on their panda tenants as they spend on housing and Chinese panda rentals (the only legal source of panda acquisition for virtually every zoo, at only a meager $1,000,000 per year per panda).
Pandas are a species that operates at a loss. They are too difficult to save. It hurts to say. Really, it does. But how much more are we hurting other species by ignoring them in favor of this cuddly bear?
It’s not as though pandas are even the most endangered species out there—in fact, their numbers are increasing in the wild, and that isn’t because of zoos or other organizations that keep them in captivity. It’s because we’ve started making an effort to leave bamboo forests available as viable habitats for them, which also saves other animals who share those habitats. Most endangered species are not growing in numbers like the Giant Panda. Virtually every other organism on the endangered species list is decreasing in number and viable habitat, not increasing—and there’s not a single one of them that receives more than a bare fraction of the attention or funds that pandas do.
It’s great that people care for pandas. I want them to live, just not at the cost of everything else.