2018-06-29 01:22:54

Adorable but sometimes criticized as useless and expensive, giant pandas can now proudly say they are contributing members of society.

A study published Thursday in Current Biology, an American academic journal published by Cell Press, concludes that panda reserves create between 10 and 27 times as much value as they cost in maintenance.

China started protecting panda habitats in the 1960s and now has 67 reserves that together cover more than 33,000 square kilometers. All of this costs Chinese taxpayers roughly $255 million a year.

But the researchers found that giant pandas and their reserves created an estimated value of $2.61 billion per year in China, and $6.9 billion per year globally as of 2010.

“Many detractors have argued that spending valuable resources on panda conservation is wasteful,” said Wei Fuwen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and author of the study. “Our analysis contradicts this view and demonstrates clearly the great value of the panda, both for its cultural and intrinsic value and for the ecosystem services provided by panda reserves.”

Wei and his fellow researchers found that giant panda reserves benefit local residents and economies, as well as improve the larger ecosystem; they help purify the air, regulate the climate, and retain water. Giant panda conservation efforts have also helped protect the habitats of many other species, as the reserves are high in biodiversity.

But the largest share of value that pandas create stems from cultural services, such as tourism. Every year, over 3.5 million visitors flock to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in southwestern China, the most popular place to see the iconic animal.

The population of giant pandas was more than halved in the 1980s due to habitat loss. But their numbers are growing again, thanks in large part to the reserves and panda experts’ increasing aptitude for getting the notoriously unromantic animals to mate. Pandas used to be listed as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but their classification was changed to “vulnerable” in 2016.

Despite the successes, the panda faces ongoing challenges. One major problem is the increasing separation of panda habitats due to human activities, such as road construction and farming — which threaten to split up animal populations and reduce biodiversity, warned one study earlier this year. Some habitats are already too small to be viable, according to a 2016 study.

Wei and his colleagues see their study’s encouraging results as justification not just for efforts to preserve the panda, but for protecting other endangered species as well.

“I have studied giant pandas for over 30 years, and many people have asked me what the use is of protecting giant pandas and these habitats,” Wei told Sixth Tone. “Through the results of this study, we also want to show people that human beings and nature share the same interests.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A panda eats bamboos at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Sept. 15, 2017. Ahmet Bolat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)