What makes pandas so special? Could be sheer cuteness. Giant pandas possess the charisma that politicians and movie stars dream of—and people crave a glimpse. The National Zoo's Internet panda cams, which follow the daily activities of Tai Shan and his mom, draw an average of two million online visits a month. In the first three months that Tai Shan was on public display, visits to the zoo jumped by as much as 50 percent over prior years. Adoring fans pack the railing at the Giant Panda Habitat shoulder to shoulder. Fingers point, voices coo, faces crease in blissful grins. So many cameras click at once that you'd think you were on the red carpet on Oscar night.
Scarcity also boosts the bears' cachet. Giant pandas are excruciatingly rare. Even other famously endangered mammals—tigers, gorillas, black rhinos, Asian elephants—outnumber them, both in the wild and in captivity. China's most recent national giant panda survey reported that 1,590 of the black-and-white bears survive in the rugged hills of Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu Provinces. Such a precise figure is questionable, especially for a hard-to-spot species that occupies isolated and often virtually impassable mountain forests. Wildlife biologists put the free-ranging population somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals. In captivity, there were only 188 pandas worldwide at the end of 2005: the 11 U.S. residents, a handful of others in Mexico, Japan, Thailand, Germany, and Austria, and all the rest in zoos and research centers in their native China.
At any zoo the arrival of newly loaned pandas or the birth of cubs brings surges in attendance. But crowds don't translate into profits. Even with aggressive "save the pandas" membership campaigns and gift shops hawking panda-themed mugs, T-shirts, puzzles, and plush toys, no zoo has collected enough additional revenue to offset panda costs—not by a long shot.
Why are pandas so expensive? Maybe they're just the tiniest bit spoiled. At U.S. zoos these high-profile animals get the best of everything: state-of-the-art habitats with 24-hour video monitoring, the services of devoted keepers and veterinarians, and abundant supplies of fresh bamboo to eat, supplemented with carrots, yams, and vitamin-and-mineral-packed biscuits cooked up especially for leaf-eaters. Keepers even add chunks of fruit to juice and water, then freeze the mix into big "fruitsicles" as treats for their charges. Under the serious-sounding heading of "enrichment items," keepers give pandas a constantly changing assortment of plastic tubs, burlap bags, balls, and other toys to crush, wrestle, toss, and roll. This caliber of care runs hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Itemizing the rest of the bill gets a little more complicated. Giant pandas are protected by both the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the U.S. Endangered Species Act. "CITES forbids exchanges of animals for 'primarily commercial purposes,' " says Ken Stansell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). "Our Endangered Species Act goes even further and says that if we're going to issue a permit for a zoo to import an endangered animal, that import has to actually enhance the survival of the species."