by Rebecca Nesbit, Press Officer, Society of Biology
Panda conservation is not ‘greenwash’ read the headline of BBC Nature’s thought-provoking write-up of the Biology Week debate ‘should we save the panda’. This referred to the evening’s extensive discussion about the use (and misuse) of pandas in conservation PR.
Whether or not you think it is important to make popular animals a conservation priority, the belief that pandas attract more conservation resources than they use is a common reason for voting that we should indeed save the panda. As poster boys, charismatic species can attract money and increase the profile of conservation (and conservation organisations).
It is surprisingly complicated to determine whether, overall, the panda brings in more money for conservation than it uses. Zoos raise money for conservation in the wild, but would people who paid for entry into a zoo still come if there were no pandas to see? How would people who make donations towards conservation of pandas spend the money otherwise? Is our marketing of pandas in order to attract funds just perpetuating the need to use large mammals as poster boys?
Keeping two pandas in Edinburgh Zoo costs the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland around £700,000 per year (£636,000 a year to the Chinese government and £70,000 a year on bamboo). Of the money paid to the Chinese government, around 70% goes directly to panda reserves, and so protects valuable habitat. What could perhaps have been better for biodiversity, however, is spending all that money on protecting forests in the most biodiverse areas of the world. But does seeing a panda in the zoo encourage people to see the importance of saving endangered species? Money isn’t all that is at stake.
Even if pandas do bring in more money than their conservation costs, which seems very likely although I have never seen hard evidence of this, using them in PR can be dangerous. Advertising the success of panda breeding programmes could be greenwash, detracting from much larger problems. But then, isn’t that true of any conservation or environmental success?
The debate revealed the importance of economics and social science in conservation strategy. It raised many questions and, as always, I would love to hear different views on the issues. I have already blogged about the importance of saving charismatic species and produced a podcast on conservation ethics.