Our Expensive Obsession with Pandas

Had you been paying attention to Twitter yesterday, you might have witnessed a graphic play-by-play of the artificial insemination of the National Zoo's panda Mei Xiang. This was just more proof that we've hit rock bottom in our addiction for this adorable creature's cuteness.

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Had you been paying attention to Twitter yesterday, you might have witnessed a graphic play-by-play of the artificial insemination of the National Zoo's panda Mei Xiang. Judging by the National Zoo's gleeful tweets, it was a glorious moment, but for us, it was just more proof that we've hit rock bottom in our addiction for this adorable creature's cuteness.

Seriously, look:

How embarrassing, right? What is gained by turning this panda into a Kardashian of animal world: exotic, essentially harmless, and scrutinized within an inch of its narrowly-circumscribed life. Do we really need to know so much about a panda that we're following its every attempt at pregnancy? What's next, a cover of National Geographic showing Mei's cub bump? And then will everyone weigh in on the fact that she's a single mom?

Seriously, perhaps now is the time we take a long, hard look at ourselves and our obsession with pandas (their sneezes, their soccer skills, their kung-fu, their business class-flying ways) and ease up. Can't we just once let nature take its course and leave Mei—and her brothers and sisters in fur—alone?

And when we do, can we finally ask ourselves, Why are we so obsessed with the panda? Maybe we should ask ourselves some hard questions:

So wait, what happened yesterday? 


And this:

Whoa crazy. Really? Has this ever happened with other animals before? 

Sorta. I mean, we're used to "celebrities" who air their fertility problems on the Web, in glossy magazines, and on reality television. In the animal kingdom, some people get really excited when champion horses mate (especially since there's a ton of money on the line there), but it's hard for us to remember the last time there was a non-human TMI moment of this scale.

So why do we do this?  

Do you want the scientific reason?

Sure. Shoot. 

Well, it's this thing, called charismatic megafaun...

Hold on, what? 

Charismatic megafauna. We talked with some PhD students at UC Davis's Graduate School of Ecology, and that's a term that applies to big animals with big, invested human followings. Think whales, sharks, cheetahs, penguins ... you know, basically any cute, adorable, majestic animal.  And being in a movie doesn't hurt.

And pandas...

You got it. The only thing is, this might be a case where charismatic megafauna gets a little bit too charismatic.


Well, it helps that the panda is adorable and has been the subject of many YouTube views and whatnot. But take this case from doctoral student Sheila Madrak at UC Davis who studies sea turtles and turn it up a few notches. "I call it the Finding Nemo phenomenon," says Madrak. "The characters Crush and Squirt -- people got really enthused about marine turtle research after Finding Nemo, because they were really popular characters with the movie. "


Well, that motivates people to get involved and gets people up and moving. Like Madrak told us, "Crush and Squirt made sea turtles seem fun and happy, and changed public perception and visibility of sea turtles. People got more involved in the preservation of these animals." Madrak told us she's seen the rise of sea turtle memorabilia and stickers promoting their preservation ever since the movie came out.

So, wait. How does this get back to pandas? 

Well, you could say that the reason we had the bizarre live-tweeting of Mei Xiang's artificial insemination was just an amplified extension of this Finding Nemo/charismatic megafauna phenomenon with the popularity of Kung Fu Panda. Perhaps we're all so interested in saving the panda (and its cuteness), we ignore its limitations like its low birth rate and normal characteristics.

We've also been known to ship them off for not being cute enough. Remember Butterstick whose internet fame and adorableness burned bright before turning ferocious? We shipped him back to China after a mere four years . And while Mei Xiang's artificial insemination is just the most recent example of our will to make pandas survive, we've also created things like panda porn and panda "sexercises" to help get them into and sustain the mood.

Panda porn? That's a little gross. 

Right? Well, money generated by new pandas may also drive those desperate measures. The Guardian's Lijia Zhang wrote in December: "In today's market economy, however, there are no more freebies. China usually offers 10-year loans with prices close to $1m as the yearly rental. The flocking of would-be panda-huggers will bring fat profits to the zoo and to China."

Stateside, they're the face of the World Wildlife Fund, and there's an obviously a payoff with making them the cover animals.  But when it comes to zoos it's a little less clear, a Washington Post report from 2005  (pre Kung Fu Panda and YouTube/Internet boom) showed four zoos "Washington, Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego, collectively spent $33 million more on pandas from 2000 to 2003 than they received in revenue from exhibiting them."  Though, more recently, pandas were a key part in helping the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo welcome its highest number of visitors (4.4 million) in the past 19 years, and they are expected to boost attendance by 500,000 at the Toronto Zoo when they arrive in 2013.

As for keeping them happy, The Telegraph's Robert Colvile cited a report which said that " each of the 150-odd pandas in captivity costs around £1.5 million [roughly $2.4 million] a year to keep," and there's at least one report of pandas sending zoos into financial turmoil because of their expenses (including those $1 million loan payment to the Chinese government).

And where does the most of this money go?

So far, China's enormous effort in preventing the species from extinction has been focused on its successful breeding programme, primarily through artificial insemination. By the end of 2010, there were some 312 pandas in captivity nationwide. So far, only one captive-born panda, named Xiang Xiang – "lucky" in Chinese – has ever been released. I am one of the few people who saw him in the wild before his unlucky ending.

Zhang writes that she found Xiang Xiang dead in 2007, showing the problem with focusing on artificial insemination instead of conservation and the panda's natural habitat. Zhang spoke to Beijing University's Lu Zhi, who "fears that the profit will go straight to the breeding programmes, which will produce more 'un-authentic' pandas," writes Zhang. "The biggest difference between wild and bred pandas is the very low sex drive of the latter: in the wild, for much longer than human history, the animal has managed to reproduce, without any human assistance, sex videos or any mate-swapping tricks."

So is human interference a problem with all charismatic megafauna? Did I say that right?

Yes you said it right. No, it isn't usually a problem. "Saving the panda has a benefit--teaching biodiversity and conservation," said doctoral candidate Mandi Finger, who specializes in ecology, in an interview with The Atlantic Wire, adding that saving the panda's environment could benefit other animals in its ecosystem. Much the way saving sea turtles could help other species inhabiting coral reefs and mangroves says Madrak. "If you can use those species--charismatic megafauna-- for public attention then it’s beneficial across the board. "

So, what about these other species?

Well, as Madrak mentions, saving sea turtles could save animals like sharks, rays, and skates. And getting people concerned about sea turtles could help affect bigger picture projects like our oceans and global warming.

Meanwhile, with the massive amounts of money that pandas generate, you could actually delist some animals like the pupfish, which Finger studies. "You could definitely delist them for sure [with that type of money]. All they require is water without bass in the desert. They don't need any help once you put them there. Dig a hole and put the fish in and they're probably okay."

So we should totally never, ever save the panda it sucks right? Sea turtles forever!

Well, that's not exactly the take away, but there is a point somewhere in between saving the panda and artificially inseminating them and making it a spectacle on Twitter.  "Endangered species don't have bank accounts. It just comes down to aesthetics. Saving one species over another is still such a human-centric view. And some of them [species] may not be useful to us other for any other reason than we 'like' them," says Finger--better than we ever could.

Photos via AP. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.