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.
Use our resources to better understand the costs and benefits of captive breeding, then SCROLL DOWN to vote!
This panda-cam live stream is courtesy Explore.org and Bifengxia, the largest panda reserve and research center in the world. You are watching Zhi Chun (“spring”), Qing Shan (“green mountain”), Zhao Yang (“morning sun”) and Ao Ao (“pride”).
- Read the first two pages of our encyclopedic entry on endangered species. It lists the two reasons species become endangered: loss of habitat and loss of genetic diversity. Can students identify examples of how conservationists are working to address both of these issues for giant pandas?
- Loss of Habitat: The NG News article says that a “substantial fraction” of the pandas’ native habitat, the bamboo forests of Sichuan, has been protected by the Chinese government.
- Loss of Genetic Diversity: Zoos and other facilities work together to breed pandas, increasing their numbers and expanding their genetic diversity.
- Read our activity “Captive Breeding and Species Survival.” The activity provides excellent questions that can be applied to the panda-breeding debate. The materials provided, from the National Zoo and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is generally supportive of captive-breeding programs. The NG News article provides some balance.
- (From the activity) What is the species-survival plan for giant pandas?
- Zoos and other facilities breed pandas to increase their numbers, expand genetic diversity, and, ultimately, release them into the wild.
- (From the activity) How can captive-breeding programs for pandas contribute to the health of Sichuan’s bamboo forest ecosystem?
- Supporters of captive-breeding programs say having pandas in zoos creates awareness and support for conservation efforts. One scientist quoted in the article says pandas’ captive-breeding programs are “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.”
- (From the activity) What are some difficulties with captive breeding of pandas?
- The program may not be effective. Biologists admit that few pandas have been successfully released back into the wild. “I think these programs have been going on long enough that we should see more progress made,” says one scientist.
- Captive-breeding does not really address the loss of habitat that contributed to pandas’ dwindling numbers to begin with. “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,” the scientist continues.
- Captive-breeding programs are very expensive. All pandas in captive-breeding facilities are on loan from China, and according to the New York Times, China charges American zoos about $1 million per panda, every year. (Cubs cost an extra $600,000.) Most zoos agree to pay another $1 million to finance research and conservation projects. One expert estimates the Chinese government makes about $80 million a year from panda breeding programs. Zoos must also invest in employees and facilities to maintain a healthy environment for their pandas. For example, “A curator, three full-time keepers and one backup keeper care for Lun Lun and Yang Yang at Zoo Atlanta. A crew of six travels around Georgia six days a week, harvesting bamboo from 400 volunteers who grow it in their backyards.”
- Some experts say the time, effort, facilities, and finances required by panda-breeding programs reduce conservation efforts on behalf of other endangered species. One expert in the NG News article mentions the Ethiopian wolf as an example, with only 500 remaining individuals and no captive breeding programs.
- Use the Venn diagram provided in the activity to brainstorm other costs and benefits of panda breeding programs.