People love their pandas—the endangered black-and-white mammal is perhaps the most recognizable conservation symbol in the world.
Possibly as few as 1,600 giant pandas still roam the mountainous forests of central China, and more than 300 live in captivity in various facilities around the globe. On Friday, Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo welcomed the most recent arrival to the captive population—a healthy infant born to Mei Xiang.
But is the considerable effort and millions of dollars put into breeding the animals in captivity really worth it? (Read more about the costs of breeding pandas in National Geographic magazine.)
Some conservationists say yes, claiming public "pandamonium" can translate to real conservation action. But others argue that the money could be better spent on other things, such as preserving threatened habitat.
"Everyone is enormously excited about baby pandas because they are undeniably attractive," said Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University and contributor to National Geographic's News Watch blog. "So by having pandas in zoos it really engages people—it really is about getting people to care, and that's important."
For instance, the Chinese government has protected a substantial fraction of the pandas' range in Sichuan Province (map), where people can visit the protected areas and see pandas in captivity.
"That's an amazing conservation achievement—more of the pandas' range is protected than for many other large endangered species, and it comes from the fact the pandas have this public presence," Pimm said.
The giant panda is also the logo of WWF, the world's largest conservation organization, and "acts as a symbol of hope for conservation," Barney Long, head of Asian species conservation at WWF-US, said by email.
Putting Pandas Back
But Marc Bekoff, an ethologist at University of Colorado, Boulder, said there's little evidence that pandas serving as inspirational icons for conservation—or, as the zoos refer to them, ambassadors—does anything for the bottom line: Boosting panda populations in the wild.
"I love pandas and I wish that they were in a better state in the wild ... but I'm just not convinced that these [captive-breeding] programs work out well in terms of getting pandas out there," Bekoff said. (See more panda pictures.)
The goal of most captive-breeding programs is to eventually reintroduce the animals back into China's bamboo forests. Although the pandas' range is mostly preserved, much of it is still fragmented in pieces, so that there are only a few large continuous tracts where the animals can roam freely.
So far, scientists have attempted two reintroductions of captive-bred pandas into Sichuan Province: Xiang Xiang, who died in 2007 after being beaten up by wild resident males in Wolong, and Tao Tao, who's been living in the Liziping Nature Reserve since 2012. Pandas that live in captive-breeding facilities outside China are on loan, and their offspring is returned to China.
"I think these programs have been going on long enough that we should see more progress made," Bekoff said. "It's almost like: Breed and pray that something works out."
Bekoff believes that no more captive pandas should be born, and that existing animals should be put in refuges out of the public eye, since it's unknown what kind of stress they endure due to such exposure, he said.
Will Travers, CEO of the wildlife-advocacy group Born Free USA, added that captive-breeding programs spend a significant amount of money on pandas, yet don't have much to show for it.
"Pandas [are the] poster animal for the zoo industry—[they] receive millions and millions worth of support, and some of this is directed in a wasteful way," he said. He claims the money would be better spent preserving their habitat.
"Just because we can take pandas and put them in the middle of D.C. or Edinburgh, that doesn't mean we should," he said.
BBC wildlife expert Chris Packham, who could not be reached for comment, said in 2009 that "we should pull the plug" on panda conservation because their habitat is not great enough to sustain them, according to the Telegraph.
"Let them go with a degree of dignity."
Marc Brody, senior advisor for conservation and sustainable development at China's Wolong Nature Reserve, agreed that the emphasis should be on saving panda habitat.
"The bigger question is not can we breed an animal in captivity, but can we give him a home in the wild—and that means restoring degraded and fragmented habitat," Brody said.
But captive breeding is an integral part of that goal, he argued. Breeding animals for reintroduction "gives us a compelling reason to restore the habitat to give these captive-born pandas a home."
"Bemoaning that too much money is spent on captive-panda programs is akin to shooting the panda messenger," Brody said. "And this particular messenger, among the most beloved of all animals, has the magnetic power to galvanize greater public and political support for increased funding for a wide range of conservation programs."
George Schaller, a longtime biologist and photographer who has studied pandas in the wild, said that reintroduction efforts are not as robust as they should be because the panda is a "political animal."
There's "so much publicity on the panda, that [Chinese] officials are afraid if a panda is released and it dies for whatever reason, they get criticized," said Schaller, who's now vice president of Panthera, a global wild-cat conservation organization.
Officials in China "feel that animals are better off in captivity: They get plenty to eat, they don't get wet and cold—so there's a great reluctance to release them," he said.
Currently the plan is to release one panda a year into the wild, but that won't contribute much to growing the animals' population in their native habitat.
China "doesn't need 300 [pandas] in captivity—it needs to restock the forests [with pandas] and protect them," Schaller said.
Which Species to Save?
Much of the panda debate comes down to prioritizing which species to save—a persistent challenge for conservationists.
In 2011, University of York environmental scientist Murray Rudd conducted an online survey of 583 conservation scientists and their views on managing biodiversity.
Sixty percent of respondents agreed that criteria should be established for deciding which species to abandon in order to focus on saving others.
As well-known cultural icons both in China and worldwide, pandas are usually top of mind.
"Nobody would ever commit this kind of money to any other species," David Wildt, head of the National Zoo's reproductive sciences program, said in a 2006 article in National Geographic magazine.
But other species, such as the endangered Ethiopian wolf, are not so lucky, Travers of Born Free noted. There are about 500 Ethiopian wolves left, and the species has little funding and no captive-breeding programs.
Choosing which species get which funds is a "very difficult debate—you're practicing a form of conservation triage," he said. "No one wants to do that."