Cute, cuddly and eminently distinctive, everybody loves giant pandas. So much so that, in exchange for political favors or for lucrative trade deals (ref), the Chinese government offers countries around the world the opportunity to rent a giant panda. But this "opportunity" comes with a hefty price tag: panda rent can cost as much as one million dollars annually for a period of at least ten years. Add to that the cost of building a state-of-the-art zoo enclosure, which runs many hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the annual cost to feed and properly care for pandas, which only eat bamboo, which can be as high as $500,000 or so each, according to a spokesperson at Zoo Atlanta (more here). Although it is unclear how much money China actually spends on its captive-breeding efforts nor on conserving wild panda habitat, it's safe to say that those costs are also high.
In that single decade, their numbers plummeted from 2,459 to just 1,112. In 1984, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the giant panda an endangered species and the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List followed suit in 1990. Their habitat had not just shrunk -- it had become fragmented, making it harder for pandas to move to new areas to find food and seek out mates. This is a particular problem for pandas, who breed infrequently, and which means it's much more difficult for their populations to recover.
Though an undoubtably iconic species for environmentalists--and the highly recognizable symbol of the World Wildlife Fund for half a century--some argue that all the dollars funneling into panda conservation are, simply put, not worth it. With fewer than 2,000 pandas left in the wild, some experts have called for the panda to be left to die out, while others have argued that preserving the species, and its image, will help fuel conservation efforts across the board. Now, a new study led by a group of Chinese researchers proves the haters wrong. Panda conservation has huge benefits, the group found, beyond just saving pandas themselves. Their research was published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
The giant panda is off the endangered list thanks to aggressive conservation efforts in China. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said in a report that the panda is now classified as a "vulnerable" instead of "endangered" species, reflecting its growing numbers in the wild in southern China. It said the wild panda population jumped to 1,864 in 2014 from 1,596 in 2004, the result of work by Chinese agencies to enforce poaching bans and expand forest reserves. However, gorillas found in East Africa are sliding towards extinction, conservationists have warned as the primates were classed as critically endangered. The gorillas have seen their fortunes worsen as a result of illegal hunting, with their status on the latest global Red List of Threatened Species changed from endangered to critically endangered – just one step away from extinction.