Returns on panda conservation for China

Digital Originals

Bai-Yun panda

For decades, China’s giant panda was an endangered species, prompting even the World Wildlife Fund to use it as its logo. But these bears are seeing a resurgence – and they’re actually making China a healthy profit.

CGTN’s Phil Lavelle reports.

Their status was officially changed from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ in 2016. Their comeback has been helped by China’s international loan program. Research published recently in the scientific journal, Current Biology – the first of its kind – appears to show that China’s $255 million a year spending on panda conservation has been worth it.

A handful of international zoos have agreements with China to house pandas on loan, in return for money and expertise which is poured back into the conservation effort.

Among them, San Diego Zoo, one of four in the United States. It has two bears: 27-year-old Bai-Yun and her six-year-old cub, Xiao Liwu. She’s the first panda to successfully give birth to cubs in the United States and has delivered six so far.

The joint China-U.S. study published in Current Biology shows loans like these helped raise $709 million in the space of a single year studied (2010) for China and $1.9 billion was made by increasing ecosystems in the country around panda reserves. That works out to a profit of $2.3 billion dollars when the money China spent is taken out of the equation. It’s a return of 923 percent.

Ron Swaisgood is one of the report’s authors. He’s also involved in San Diego Zoo’s conservation and ecology efforts. He tells CGTN that it’s great news, but it’s not the end of the matter:

“Panda conservation is continuing. We always thought that the panda was a good return on investment.. There’s a lot of money spent on pandas and mostly on the preservation of their habitat of course. But what this study showed is that there’s good returns on that investment.”

Christina Simmons, also from San Diego Zoo, says the pandas are a big attraction, but their motivation was not about getting visitors in. It was about making sure the species survives:
“Most of the cubs that were being born to pandas in China were dying. And we set out to correct that, to learn more about giant panda reproduction, to learn more about maternal care and to determine how we could reverse the survivability issue.”

The latest official panda count in 2014 showed a ten-year rise of 17 percent and put the total number of pandas in the wild in China at 1,864. There are now 67 nature reserves there, protecting about two-thirds of those wild pandas.

The effort now, to make sure the panda population keeps growing and never returns to ‘endangered’ status.