browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

Is panda PR a good idea?

Posted by on October 30, 2012

Rebecca Nesbit, Society of Biologyby 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.

2 Responses to Is panda PR a good idea?

  1. Robert Close

    Interesting point here (for me at least) is that only 70% of the money paid to China by other countries with Pandas in their Zoos goes directly to the Panda reserves.
    Where then does the remaining 30% go?
    Of Edinbrough Zoo’s £636K a year paid to China, nearly £191K will not be spent on the Panda reserves. That is a huge lump of cash, especially when you consider how many other Pandas in other zoos around the globe are raking in similar amounts for China. Good work if you can get it!
    Is it in China’s best interests then that the Panda remains a species under threat?
    Would the zoos that currently house Pandas around the world continue with the Rent-a-Panda scheme if these animals were in abundance?
    Are China holding the rest of the world to ransome over their Pandas – If we want to save them then we have to pay for them…?

  2. Nigel Atkinson

    Whilst I can see the argument that money may be spent better elsewhere, The fact remains that cute fury animals attract a fence sitting public to give up hard earned cash.
    Advertising the success of the breeding programme (Which may or may not be greenwash) to my mind it is good PR, making people feel that they are making a difference, which may in turn get them to put their hand in their pocket a second time.
    I see any positive PR as a good thing. People need to have the hope that things can be turned around, success stories have a role to play. Keep on hitting people over the head with bad news and they loose interest, and take their money elsewhere. WWF have built a whole conservation movement on the face of the Panda. I wonder if they would have done so well if they had used a reptile as an emblem.