The panda is an important symbol of China, wildlife conservation, and, well, cuteness. Zoos around the world invest millions of dollars in bringing the black and white Chinese superstars on board. However, panda-care costs are raising the question as to whether or not it still makes economic sense for many zoos to engage in so-called pandanomics.
Pandas are one of evolution’s greatest jokes. Despite the fact that they have the digestive system of a carnivore, pandas insist on eating bamboo. In order to sustain themselves on such an inefficient diet, pandas spend up to 12 hours a day consuming between 26 to 84 pounds of the plant. If their natural inefficiencies weren’t enough, pandas are now facing habitat destruction. As China becomes more and more developed and more of its forests and wild areas are destroyed, pandas are increasingly endangered. According to The World Wildlife Fund, (the WWF), there are now less than 1,600 pandas remaining in the wild. However, pandas have a not-so-secret weapon: they are incredibly cute. This cuteness has led to people around the world spending an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy to protect the cuddly creatures.
The ways in which China uses the world’s dwindling supply of pandas as both political and economic tools is well documented. Although the modern first panda exchange programs were initiated in the 1970s as tokens of friendship and important tools of Chinese soft power, today’s pandas come with many more string attached. Beijing now charges international zoos around one million USD per year to rent a panda, and the contracts have to be renewed every 10 years. In addition, upon the birth of a panda cub, zoos are required to pay China a one time fee of 600,000 USD. Even after the initials fee are paid, cubs are contractually required to be returned to China within two years of their birth, even if they were born internationally.
It’s not just about the money either. Pandas are also increasingly being used as political tools. China will now throw in a panda in exchange for political or natural resource deals; Beijing has added panda bonuses to entice foreign partners in deals ranging from uranium supplies to free trade agreements to salmon meat. Panda loans can also act as a stick in addition to their role as a carrot. China has threatened to recall at least two contracted-out pandas when political disagreements arose with their host country.
So, with all of the political hassle and fees involved, what’s in it for the foreign zoos? Theoretically, pandas can be an enormously attractive investment for zoos to make. According to The Guardian, when the Edinburgh Zoo added pandas to their line-up, the number of visitors shot-up by four million over two years. The zoo even installed a panda cam to take advantage of the panda’s celebrity. If the Edinburgh Zoo’s female panda, Tian Tian, who is reportedly pregnant, has a successful birth and a new baby panda is added to the zoo’s line-up, Edinburgh zoo officials are confident that their financial future is secure. Adult pandas are a draw, but nothing beats a baby panda to increase zoo attendance. Did I mention how cute they are?
However, there are no guarantees that a potential pregnancy will lead to a cute fluffy baby panda and hordes of cooing visitors. For example, a panda in Chengdu was recently discovered to be faking pregnancy in order to get more food. And even if the pregnancy is real, panda miscarriages and dead babies are sadly very common. For instance, in 2012, the Washington D.C.’s National Zoos newest baby panda tragically died, six days after zoo officials triumphantly announced the birth.
What happens to a zoo when there are no baby pandas? Well, as reported by The Guardian, costs can quickly start to turn against the whole enterprise. For example, in addition to the one million USD per year cost of renting a panda, the Edinburgh Zoo also pays 300,000 GBP to house its pandas. Panda keepers have also recently been struck by a bamboo price shock, as prices have climbed from 70,000 GBP to 100,000 GBP per year to keep the pandas happily munching on their inefficient snacks. Although zoos may initially view pandas as a source of funding, the astronomical input costs of keeping a pandas may ultimately suck money away from zoos. The Washington Post reported that four American zoos, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego, have spent a collective 33 million USD more on their pandas than they received in revenue from panda-associated visitors. In addition, without a baby, panda fatigue is common. The National Zoo is Washington D.C. found a 20 percent drop off in the number of its visitors who visited the panda enclosure from when the enclosure first opened, with the number of park visitors eventually returning to pre-panda levels. The excitement of a baby panda seems to be one of the only ways to keep excitement high enough to justify as panda’s price.
The evidence increasingly points to the conclusion that adding pandas is a highly questionable investment strategy for zoos. Still, pandas are growing more popular. By late next year, 20 foreign zoos are expected to have acquired Chinese pandas. Why are foreign zoos still purchasing money-chomping pandas? It might be more a question of prestige than the simple questions of attendance and revenue. By acquiring a panda, zoos hope to vault themselves into what is still a highly select club. Or perhaps zoo keepers, like the rest of us, are still simply starstruck by China’s most magnificent and adorable of beasts.
Image via Wikipedia.