Giant Panda Reality TV Has Gone Too Far

The iconic animals are a big business in China. But is this increased attention harming conservation efforts?

A girl watches a giant panda eat an apple cooled on an ice block, at a zoo in Wuhan. (Reuters)

China's panda marketing machine scored a big hit this week with the recent introduction of "iPanda," billed as a the "first 24-hour HD live telecast program of pandas through multiple cameras worldwide."

Small matter that most of the website's cameras trained on the Chengdu Panda Research Base are not yet working, other panda cams can already be viewed on zoo websites around the world, and that watching pandas turns out to be mostly really boring. IPanda -- its name a head-scratching endangered animal/Apple product hybrid -- is already showing signs of becoming the world leader in panda aggregation.

It's a reminder that giant pandas are a very big business for the Chinese government -- as well as a bamboo-munching 250-pound embodiment of the country's devastating environmental policies.

There are currently more than 40 pandas, including breeding pairs and cubs born overseas, on loan from China worldwide, not counting pandas in Hong Kong and Taiwan. While costs paid by zoos vary, the most conservative estimate, based on negotiations U.S. zoos made with Beijing in 2008, is $500,000 per breeding pair per year, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars per panda cub born while the pair is being rented.

This doesn't include millions more that zoos pledge to China's conservation projects and domestic research, contributions pushed by wildlife groups and federal regulators in the US and other countries. Most foreign zoos see a big spike in visitors, especially if the pandas breed, but lose money over the life of their panda rental contracts.

These foreign zoos, who spend months or sometimes years, and tens of thousands of dollars, painstakingly breeding the cubs are never allowed to keep them. They return home to China, where the ultimate goal is to reintroduce them into the wild and add to a population estimated at about 1,600 -- an effort that has met with mixed results.

It's a conservation effort that even animal experts in China have begun to openly criticize, as panda habitats continue to be swallowed up by urbanization. Lu Zhi, a panda expert from Beijing University, last year called the reintroduction efforts as "pointless as taking off the pants in order to fart."

The introduction of iPanda seems aimed for the still-untapped by Big Panda audience of online viewing fanatics, who made "sneezing panda," and The National Zoo's newborn Tai Shan, also known as "butterstick" accidental early Internet celebrities.

Like any other big business, pandas are subject to the whims of supply and demand. In 2008, the San Diego Zoo and three others in the United States were able to renegotiate their contracts with the Chinese government, cutting the $1 million annual rent in half, and reducing the fee they paid every time pandas had a cub. Why was China so accommodating? A successful run of breeding panda cubs combined with an earthquake-damaged housing facility had left it with, in the words of one panda expert, with "pandas kind of coming out of their ears."