Published: July 2006
Panda, Inc.
What's black and white and adored all over—and can cost a zoo more than three million dollars a year?
By Lynne Warren
National Geographic Staff

He's got chubby cheeks. He naps a lot. He eats with his hands. He lives with his mother. Not exactly the kind of character you'd expect to find at the center of high finance, international diplomacy, fan frenzy, government scrutiny, and scientific fascination. But Tai Shan is a giant panda cub, and that makes him, well, not your average bear.

Born at 3:41 a.m. on Saturday, July 9, 2005, at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., Tai Shan is the first offspring of Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, male and female giant pandas shipped from China to Washington in December 2000. There are only eight other pandas in the United States: two at Zoo Atlanta in Georgia, two at the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee, and four at southern California's San Diego Zoo, where Bai Yun has had three healthy cubs in the past seven years. Together these 11 animals represent an extraordinary investment of scientific resources—and cash.

Hosting giant pandas costs each zoo an average of 2.6 million dollars a year, and that's if no babies arrive. Add a cub, and the budget tops three million dollars. Add two cubs (nearly half of panda pregnancies produce twins), and the tab approaches four million dollars. "Nobody," says David Wildt, head of the National Zoo's reproductive sciences program, "would ever commit this kind of money to any other species."

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."

Panda loans haven't always worked that way. In the 1980s and early '90s, some short-term loans from China to U.S. zoos seemed to be more about China's rental fees and zoos' admissions income than conservation. Sexually mature animals were shipped to institutions that couldn't offer breeding opportunities. Some critics even accused the Chinese of capturing wild pandas just to build up their rental stock. The controversy pushed the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare a moratorium on panda loans of any kind until it worked out a new set of giant panda import regulations. "We had to step back," Stansell says, "and find a way to use our permit process as a conservation tool."

In 1998 the FWS declared a bold new policy: If U.S. zoos wanted pandas, they would have to become partners with China in giant panda conservation. China needed the help. Its conservation agencies needed information—basic science about panda diseases, hormones, social skills, and needs for space and privacy. In China's zoos and breeding centers, caretakers needed training to help pandas having trouble with mating, to combat parasites and infections, to bring up babies, and to make sure pandas were getting optimal chow. China's cash-strapped central government needed money to help pay for expanding and improving its network of nature reserves, and for the enforcement essential to transforming a reserve from an outline on a map into a genuine haven for wildlife. Today, to qualify for a panda import permit, a U.S. zoo has to design a research program that benefits wild pandas, and it must also help China pay for its own panda projects.

Starting in the late 1990s, U.S. zoos have committed research firepower and fund-raising clout to long-term scientific loans. China sends captive-bred giant pandas to the United States. Zoo staff here study the smallest details of their pandas' mating activity, food habits, exercise preferences, sleep rhythms, and other traits, and share results with their Chinese counterparts.

By David Wildt's latest count, workshops presented by U.S. and Chinese experts in China have trained nearly 1,300 of that country's conservation professionals. Another hundred-plus have spent time at American zoos, working side by side with U.S. counterparts, then going home to share their new knowledge and skills. Each zoo's average annual investment in panda science and education programs: $614,000.

Every year each zoo also sends China a million dollars for the protection of pandas and their remaining habitat. China uses these funds, for instance, to install communications networks in reserves, create environmental education programs for schools near protected areas, analyze the impact of habitat fragmentation on genetic diversity, and develop plans to restore degraded bamboo forests.

There's plenty of bureaucracy involved. Funds for projects in nature reserves in Sichuan Province typically pass from the contributing zoo to the China Wildlife Conservation Association, to the central government's State Forestry Administration, to the Wildlife Division of the Sichuan Provincial Forestry Department, to the district government where the reserve is located, and only then to the reserve itself. But the support for fieldwork is crucial, says Peking University researcher Wang Dajun. "Captive numbers are up, but pandas in the wild still face very serious problems," especially the loss of habitat.

"Getting as much information as we'd like to have on how the money is being spent has been challenging," David Wildt says. Zoos must account to the Fish and Wildlife Service for the impact of their funds, but China is a sovereign nation, and no donor organization is likely to have much luck ordering the Chinese to open their books to public scrutiny. The large sums of money zoos spend on their panda loan agreements "create some tension," Ken Stansell acknowledges. "But China's spending a lot of its own money too, and investing twice as much in conservation in the wild as it was a decade ago."

Loan agreements also provide that a surviving cub can ring up an additional $600,000 obligation for the breeding zoo. All in all, the financial burden is tremendous, Stansell says, leaving him still puzzled about "why a zoo would want to get into the panda business."

Don Lindburg, head of the San Diego Zoo's giant panda program, has an answer. Hosting pandas isn't about boosting revenues, or institutional prestige, or visitor numbers, he says. "Our pandas are valuable because they create a reason for a relationship with China. They open doors and give us access to what's happening with pandas in the field."

Lindburg's mightiest ambassador has probably been Hua Mei, oldest daughter of San Diego panda matriarch, Bai Yun. Born in 1999, Hua Mei was the first surviving panda cub bred in the U.S. In 2004 she was recalled by China to her mother's birthplace—the giant panda research center in Sichuan Province's Wolong Nature Reserve—where she promptly got pregnant and delivered twins. Hua Mei produced a second pair of baby pandas in 2005. And she wasn't alone.

Last summer Wolong was at the center of an unprecedented captive-panda population explosion: 11 females there (including Hua Mei) gave birth to 16 cubs. More stunning than the number of births was the survival rate, even of the twins: 100 percent.

"Ten years ago the infant mortality rate for babies hand-reared in Wolong's nursery was 100 percent," Don Lindburg says. When a wild female panda gives birth to twins, she typically cares for one and abandons the other to die. For twins born in captivity, human caretakers would try to save the rejected newborn, but almost always failed. "Those cubs were getting a dog-milk formula," Lindburg says, until a San Diego Zoo nutritionist came up with a replacement formula that more closely mimics the high-fat milk nursing pandas get from their mothers.

Wolong staff also boosted their survival rate by "twin swapping," which alternates babies between mother's care and nursery tending. Even though pandas don't usually raise two offspring at once, new mothers seem willing to accept both cubs—with a little help from human nannies.

Conservation International biologist Lü Zhi says the popular notion that giant pandas are naturally poor breeders is just wrong. Recent studies show that wild pandas reproduce about as robustly as North American brown bears: On average, a wild female will have a cub every other year for some 15 years, adding five to six new pandas to the population over her lifetime.

Years of frustrating captive-breeding failures turn out to be mostly the result of human mismanagement, zoo staff acknowledge—making 2005's successes even more gratifying. Two cubs born in the U.S. boosted the year's total count, as did a surviving baby in Japan, and cubs produced at breeding centers in China's Sichuan and Shaanxi Provinces.

All those cubs pushed the captive population closer to a magic number: 300. With that many pandas, says population biologist Jon Ballou, "we can have a self-sustaining captive population, and maintain 90 percent of known giant panda genetic variation for a century." A member of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, Ballou compiles a list every year that rates the genetic desirability of potential matings between all the captive adult pandas in the world.

So cuddly, funny, rambunctious, adorable Tai Shan turns out to be more than just the fulfillment of the National Zoo's decades-long dream of raising a healthy giant panda cub, more than a crowd-pleasing, four-legged rock star in a black-and-white bear suit. He stands for the possibility of genuine international cooperation on behalf of endangered animals, for the powers of science to turn substantial, long-term funding into real progress on tough conservation challenges. And like every one of the cubs that swelled the giant panda ranks last year, he moves his species one step closer to a self-sustaining captive population, and one step back from the brink of extinction. Pretty heady stuff for a one-year-old. Happy birthday, Tai Shan.