By Dr. Becker
There are only an estimated 1,864 giant pandas left in the wild, and they're spread throughout 20 highly fragmented pockets of forest in China.1 This represents a 17 percent rise in population from 2004 to 2014, which is why, in 2016, the animals were downgraded from "endangered" to "vulnerable."2
While this means panda numbers may be on the rise, and the species may be at less risk of extinction than it once was, there are some who believe the habitat, as it stands, will not support the wild population in the long term.3
While the Chinese government has made much of the pandas' habitat a protected area, they're also heavily invested in captive-breeding programs, many of which serve as popular tourist attractions. Live broadcasts of the animals in captivity also draw millions of views from people watching the 24/7 feeds around the globe.
The fanfare surrounding them is said to help raise awareness of the animals and promote conservation efforts, but there is rising concern that pandas may be being exploited for monetary gain, to the detriment of their well-being.4
Millions of People Visit Panda Tourism Destinations Each Year
From zoos to breeding facilities, pandas serve as a major draw for tourists. As Global Times put it, "A pandas' looks falls into what Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz called 'baby schema,' which refers to facial and body features that make an animal appear cute — and thus makes others want to care for it. Many panda fans treat cubs like their own children, monitoring their growth and keeping track of their development."5
Pandas' popularity is a double-edged sword, creating momentum to increase protections while also drawing in those eager to experience the animals on a closer level. "It is an open secret that many zoos and breeding facilities have 'pay to play with the panda' policies," Global Times wrote, with many of them offering tourists the ability to take photos with pandas and even act as "panda nannies" who clean their enclosures and feed them bamboo.6
The Dujiangyan Panda Base, for instance, offers a "get close to the pandas" experience that can last for one to three days and includes activities such as feeding the pandas and cleaning the panda enclosures.7 The concern is that the pandas could become stressed, anxious or fatigued from the frequent interactions with humans.
Even the video broadcasts are controversial, as while some cameras are mounted in an unobtrusive way, there are reports that an increasing number of photography teams and camera-wielding tourists may be stressing out the pandas. In one case, a viewer reported a camera man purposely teasing panda cubs.8
Reports of Panda Exploitation
Another disturbing report involves the panda cub Qingqing, which, Global Times reported, may have been taken from her mother too early for use in a TV show:9
"Qingqing was forcefully weaned and separated from her mother at the tender age of  (cubs usually are not weaned until after 18 months) just so he could star in a new TV show named ['Panda Story,'] in which Qingqing is taken care of by eight Chinese celebrities. The program was so controversial and distasteful that panda fans and general netizens alike united to call for a boycott."
Further, a video of panda keepers at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding tossing panda cubs to the ground (above), went viral with animal rights activists and others calling it abuse. The keepers defended their actions, saying they were trying to get out of the enclosure while the pandas were biting them. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding called the incident "inappropriate" and said it had ordered staff to treat the pandas gently, even if they bite.10
Although the State Forestry Administration prohibited tourists from getting within a close distance of pandas in 2015, Global Times reported, "Among panda watchers, it is an open secret that slipping some cash to the guards at some zoos and bases will allow visitors physical contact with a panda."11
Are Captive-Breeding Programs Succeeding in Introducing Pandas Back Into the Wild?
There is also controversy over whether captive-breeding programs for pandas are actually helping to increase wild panda populations. Some argue the programs, which cost millions, have little to show for decades' worth of breeding efforts and resources may be better directed toward saving, protecting and expanding wild panda habitat.
As it stands, the goal of many captive-breeding programs is to eventually release more pandas back into the wild (where, as critics point out, they must have adequate habitat to sustain them).
However, such efforts have had mixed results. In 2006, the first captive-bred panda was released into the wild. Sadly, the panda, Xiang Xiang, died in 2007 after a fight with wild pandas. Two other pandas were released in 2012 and 2013, along with a female, Xue Xue. Xue Xue also died within the same year she was released, with officials stating she lacked the necessary survival skills.
In late 2015, officials in China released the fifth captive-bred panda, a female named Hua Jiao. This time, the panda underwent a wilderness-training plan prior to being released. In 2016, two more pandas, Hua Yan and Zhang Meng, were released, and both had reportedly learned skills needed to survive in the wild, such as foraging for food, identifying and hiding from predators and adapting to weather conditions.12
As it stands, panda conservation is moving in the right direction, but there's still much work to be done — and there's no denying that the animals have a commercial draw. As Time noted:13
"China rents pandas out to the tune of $1 million a year. Zoos typically sign a 10-year contract, which means that at the end of that contract, a zoo will have spent $10 million renting one panda. And any cubs that are born while at the zoo? Well, China charges a cub tax of $400,000. And those little cuties have to be shipped back to China when they turn ."
The hope is that the money gained will be used to further the conservation of these magnificent creatures in the wild.