The Good Business of Panda Conservation

Pandas are one of our generation’s most beloved animals—brought about by classic viral videos. But our enjoyment of their sneezes and tumbles down playground slides was always tarnished by fact that they were endangered. And pandas are famously hard to breed in captivity to increase numbers—not only do females ovulate only once a year, males just aren’t any good at the actual act of mating.

A panda sitting on a rock. Panda Conservation pbs rewire
Bei Bei the giant panda eats birthday cake at his home in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 22. Photo by Matthew S. Stern.

That’s why it was big news two years ago when the World Wildlife Fund declared that the giant panda was now only vulnerable, rather than endangered. What happened? The 17 percent rise in population is largely due to a panda reserve system established by the Chinese government, which houses two-thirds of all wild pandas on Earth.

While it’s great that the animals are making a comeback, saving the panda doesn’t come without cost, something conservationists are constantly reminded of. The high expense of protecting the panda is one of the biggest arguments against saving them.

“The manpower to manage the reserve and monitor the pandas and biodiversity is the most costly thing,” said conservation biologist Fuwen Wei.

However, a new study by Wei, who teaches zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, found that, along with the educational and biodiversity benefits of panda conservation, there is also vast economic gain to be had by protecting these animals.

According to his study, when you combine the cultural value and the economic value of the jobs required to run a panda reserve, the project yields 10 to 27 times as much as it costs to maintain.

In his opinion, the cost of doubling of panda habitat from 1990 to 2010 was worth it, as it helped the panda reach “vulnerable” status and created additional value for humans, too. His study estimates that the value of all panda reserves, which was $562 million in 1980, had increased to between $2.6 and $6.9 billion in 2010.

Wei says he hopes this information will inspire others to save endangered animals without worrying whether it’s worth it financially.

Conservation at home makes a difference, too

For most millennials, our first brush with exotic animals was at our local zoo. But, after the release of movies like “Blackfish,” zoos and animal-centric amusement parks have experienced some backlash. Organizations like Defenders of Wildlife seek to educate people on the benefits of conservation land as an alternative to captivity.

The economic benefit of conservation doesn’t end with the panda in China, said Mark Salvo of Defenders of Wildlife.

“That crowd of folks (looking at wildlife within a U.S. conservation area) might have traveled from all over the nation,” he said. “They may have rented a car after getting off a plane. They rented gear, often time using really expensive binoculars or cameras. They eat at the local places around the land. That’s recreational economy.”

Tourists stimulate the economy, but the conservation system itself is playing a part, too. The National Wildlife Refuge System, which is governed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, provides 37,000 jobs and $792 million in annual employment income. This income contributes more than $342 million in tax revenue and generates a total of $4.5 billion to the economy overall every year.

There are environmental benefits to this land, too. For example, in Wyoming, national forests provide 53 percent of the state’s water supply as forested lands “absorb rainfall, refill underground aquifers, cool and cleanse water, slow storm runoff, reduce flooding and sustain watersheds for people and wildlife,” Salvo said. Most of Minnesota’s drinking water also comes from two national forests in the northeast part of the state.

Salvo said that homes have also increased in value based on how close they are to national parks or conservation lands.

Aditi Shrikant

Aditi Shrikant is a Brooklyn-based writer whose goals are to eliminate mansplainers along with the top sheet. You can follow her on Twitter @Aditi_Shrikant and Instagram @aditishrikant.