The trouble with the conservation’s cutest mascot.
On a chilly spring day in 1966, zookeepers in London loaded a giant panda named Chi-Chi onto a commercial plane. The aircraft was bound for Russia. Chi-Chi was bound, you might say, for love. She would soon arrive at the Moscow Zoo to meet a slightly younger male named An-An, the only other captive giant panda living outside of China at the time. The goal was to get the two bears to breed.
To prepare for Chi-Chi’s departure, British European Airways removed about 30 seats in the front of the plane. The panda was carried aboard in a crate and separated from 37 passengers by a screen. Flight attendants sprayed deodorant to try and vanquish the scent of the 235-pound bear. For lunch, the attendants served passengers a side of bamboo hearts in Chi-Chi’s honor.
The media breathlessly covered the long-distance love affair. Yet it was doomed from the start. When the bears first met in Moscow, An-An attacked Chi-Chi and zookeepers had to separate them with brooms, one newspaper reported. The pandas stayed in separate cages that summer. In the fall, keepers arranged another meeting, but this time, Chi-Chi “slapped” An-An in the face. Soon after, Chi-Chi returned to London, prompting headlines like “From Russia … Without Love.”
Although attempts to breed Chi-Chi and An-An failed, they marked the start of a massive, global campaign to breed pandas in captivity. It was fueled by a sense of urgency: The giant panda population was dwindling. In southwestern China, the only place on Earth where the animals live, human development was destroying forests, and pandas were being plucked from their land and placed in zoos. In the 1980s, only about 1,100 bears remained, down from a historical population that scientists believe once numbered in the tens of thousands.
As pandas started vanishing from the wild, they grew into powerful symbols of the movement to conserve the natural world. As the plight of wildlife was making headlines, pandas — clumsy, big-eyed bears that look like plush toys come to life — emerged as the perfect mascot to rally support.
The World Wildlife Fund, an influential environmental organization, helped formalize the animals as icons when it chose the panda as its logo in 1961. Chi-Chi, An-An’s wouldn’t-be mate, was the inspiration for the design. (WWF, now known internationally as the World Wide Fund for Nature, chose the panda, in part, because black-and-white logos were cheaper to print.)
As pandas shot to stardom, China, the US, and zoos around the world fueled the captive breeding campaign with tens of millions of dollars in veterinary research. China also created dozens of forest reserves to protect the bears. In 2018, the country announced plans to combine many of them into a single habitat three times larger than Yellowstone National Park.
These efforts have unquestionably paid off for pandas. Scientists learned from Chi-Chi and An-An’s platonic exchange and, in time, they nearly perfected the difficult art of panda breeding and husbandry. That’s the only reason you can see them in zoos today.
The bears are also recovering in the wild. The most recent estimates indicate that more than 1,800 pandas now live in southwestern China, and their numbers are increasing. That trend prompted the country to announce, in 2021, that pandas are no longer endangered. (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the global authority on endangered animals, delisted pandas in 2016.)
Imagine that: The panda, the very symbol of endangered species, is no longer endangered.
But if giant pandas are mascots for endangered species, then their team is, so to speak, losing. In the time that environmental advocates were saving pandas, much of the rest of the planet’s wildlife continued to deteriorate. The world now faces an unprecedented and accelerating crisis of biodiversity loss, with more than 1 million species at risk of extinction. Forests are quieter. The oceans are emptier.
The story of the panda is, in a sense, a story of success. Tales of rebounding animal populations are rare. But it carries with it a warning: The model of conservation that lifted up pandas won’t work to save everything else.
The global effort to save giant pandas is rooted in our collective obsession with these bears. It dates back to at least the 1930s, when a New York City socialite journeyed East.
The only pandas on American soil back then were stuffed bears in natural history museums. But in 1936, a dress designer in NYC named Ruth Harkness traveled to China in search of a live cub. She was trying to finish what her late husband, William Harkness Jr., had started: Months earlier, the young explorer died from cancer on an expedition to capture a panda and bring it back to the US.
One November morning, Mrs. Harkness and her local guide heard squealing by the stump of a large spruce tree in the mountains outside of Chengdu, Henry Nicholls recounts in The Way of the Panda. There, she found a baby panda no larger than a kitten. The cub was perhaps less than two weeks old.
“I stood for minutes in a trance,” Harkness, known for her deep voice and bright red lipstick, told a reporter in 1937. “I had discovered a most precious thing — a tiny offspring of one of Mother Nature’s greatest and rarest mysteries in the animal kingdom.”
She named the cub Su-Lin and took him back to New York City on a steamship. He was an instant hit. “Wherever she goes, Mrs. Harkness lugs her 10-pound jewel along in a traveling basket,” the Daily News wrote at the time. “The infant panda has viewed the interior of some of New York’s best restaurants since its arrival.”
What makes animals like the panda so popular? Maybe it’s their looks, their striking appearance, cute and fearsome all at once. Pandas also exploit our parenting instincts. Cubs have round faces with big cheeks, and they tumble about like helpless toddlers. (We also tend to like what we can relate to. Fellow mammals with arms? Sure. Freshwater mussels? Not so much.)
Harkness eventually brought Su-Lin to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, where the cub — the first live panda in the US — drew a record 53,000 visitors on the first day he was displayed.
It was China, however, that turned the bears into a global sensation.
In the 1970s, the Chinese government began sending wild-caught pandas around the world as state gifts — a sign of goodwill and friendship, historian Elena Songster wrote in her 2018 book, Panda Nation. There was even a term for it: Panda diplomacy.
“Giant pandas served the Chinese government as invaluable tools for putting a friendly face on China,” Songster wrote. “These fuzzy creatures thawed Cold War tensions and promoted the idea that warmer relations with the inscrutable Communist power could be possible.”
Most famously, China gave two pandas to President Richard Nixon in 1972 after a series of successful peace talks. The bears, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, flew to DC on Air Force One and were taken to the National Zoo “under security measures as tight as if they had been Chairman Mao,” the New York Times reported. (In exchange, the US sent China Matilda and Milton, a pair of musk oxen with some kind of skin condition.)
American pandas were as famous as any celebrity. Two decades after Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling arrived, China sent the US two more bears, Shi Shi and Bai Yun, this time to the San Diego Zoo. News helicopters filmed their high-security motorcade as if they were heads of state.
“Make no mistake: That phenomenon that zookeepers call ‘pandamania’ is back,” the LA Times wrote in 1996. “No animal in the history of US zoos brings the crowds and the awe-struck response of pandas.”
Pandamania was good for zoos and for China. It wasn’t necessarily good for wild pandas.
In the 1980s, China stopped giving away pandas as state gifts but began loaning them out for a few months at a time, often at the expense of the wild population. George Schaller, then director of science at a large environmental organization called the Wildlife Conservation Society, criticized these short-term loans as “rent-a-panda” programs.
“I have a nightmare vision of evermore pandas being drained from the wild until the species exists only in captivity,” he wrote in his 1993 book The Last Panda.
In those years, pandas were facing other pressures in their homeland. Mines and human developments in Sichuan Province were replacing forests. Meanwhile, pandas were running out of food — stirring up fears that the world’s most beloved animal might soon go extinct.
Pandas, like humans, are technically omnivores. About 6,000 years ago, however, they stopped consuming meat, for the most part. Today, pandas almost exclusively eat bamboo.
While bamboo grows abundantly in China, it has a few critical shortcomings. Like celery, it doesn’t have many calories, so pandas have to spend half of the day eating. Plus, they can’t put on enough fat to hibernate in the winter like other bears.
Bamboo is also a somewhat unreliable food source. Every so often, at seemingly random intervals, entire hillsides of bamboo stalks flower, produce seeds, and die.
Normally, only one or a few bamboo species might flower at the same time, so pandas can just forage for other varieties if they need to. But in the ’70s, multiple species died all at once, according to Songster, causing the bears to starve. By some estimates, more than 100 died. Then in the ‘80s, bamboo forests flowered and died once again, fueling concerns that pandas were at risk of extinction (not to mention reports that pandas were looting food from peoples’ homes).
Although it’s not clear whether the second bamboo die-off actually harmed many pandas, it helped ignite the global campaign to save these animals — at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
China and groups such as WWF relied on two main approaches. One was to establish a system of protected areas that prohibited hunting, logging, and other harmful human activities, as China has done. Another was to build out a massive breeding operation, the likes of which the world had never seen.
Breeding animals in captivity can theoretically help refresh a dwindling wild animal population. It also helps restock zoos. Without breeding pandas or taking them from the wild, zoos would eventually run out of their biggest attractions. That’s a problem, not only for zoos but for conservation, said William McShea, a scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
“If you’re going to sell people on giant pandas, you need to show people a giant panda,” he said. (Pandas are “great showmen,” McShea added. “Giant pandas will sit there and essentially do tricks for you all day long.”)
Breeding pandas, however, is a challenge.
Female pandas ovulate just once a year for one to three days. In the wild, males will congregate along ridge tops in the spring and “a stream of visiting females in heat keeps the mating activity intense,” McShea has written. In captivity, however, vets have to introduce a pair of pandas at just the right time. Even then, the bears may prefer to swat at each other rather than have sex.
“There was nothing easy about any of it,” said David Kersey, an associate professor of physiology at Western University who helped develop the National Zoo’s captive breeding program.
In several instances, zoos have tried using videos of pandas copulating, a.k.a. panda porn, to get the bears in the mood. This is not a joke. At one of the most famous breeding facilities in China, scientists showed a video of pandas mating to a five-year-old female bear named Ke Lin because she kept rejecting her mate, Yongyong.
“We played them the film and she took great interest in it,” a spokesman at the Chengdu facility told the Independent. “After that, there was no stopping her and they mated successfully.”
Zookeepers have also tried giving pandas viagra and working them out. In 2011, keepers at the National Zoo ran Tian Tian, a popular male panda, through a sort of sex training program designed to strengthen his legs. “We’re building up his stamina,” Brandie Smith, a senior curator at the zoo, told the Washington Post. “I think Tian is in pretty good shape, but … we’re turning him into an Olympic athlete.”
The early years of panda breeding were full of disasters. In one case, a male panda in Japan reportedly died during a routine electro-ejaculation procedure — which involves a veterinarian sending a small shock to the animal’s prostate to get him to produce semen. Zookeepers also had a hard time figuring out if a bear was pregnant until right before she gave birth. Infants are tiny, weighing just 3 to 5 ounces. During ultrasounds, zookeepers would occasionally confuse feces for a fetus. It was a mess.
Yet little by little, the science improved. Vets figured out how to tell exactly when a female is ovulating and in heat. They also learned which males make the perfect genetic match. “We’ve seen the success rate of breeding just skyrocket,” Kersey said.
Scientists also learned how to keep more babies alive. In the ’90s, the survival rate of captive cubs in China was about 10 percent, according to Qiongyu Huang, a wildlife biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Today, it’s almost 90 percent, he said. There are now around 600 pandas in captivity.
“Veterinary science has done an outstanding job,” said Marc Brody, president of the NGO Panda Mountain, who’s worked on panda conservation for more than two decades.
Pandas are a threatened species, still just one step away from the classification of endangered. But along with China’s growing efforts to protect a massive area of forested land, captive breeding has, for now, managed to avert their extinction. “The turnaround in China has just been remarkable,” McShea said.
Pandas are one of several iconic creatures that have for decades drawn the bulk of conservation support and public attention. Tigers, mountain gorillas, wolves, and elephants are other examples.
Pouring resources into a handful of popular animals was the dominant approach to conservation in the late 20th century, said Jason Gilchrist, an ecologist at Edinburgh Napier University. The idea was to use those flashy species to draw in funding that could trickle down to other animals — in other words, pandas could be tools for conservation, not just diplomacy. Plus, protecting land for one kind of animal can shield a whole host of others.
This approach, known as single-species conservation, has worked to some degree, especially for nature’s A-listers. Since 2008, for example, India has doubled its wild population of tigers. The number of mountain gorillas in Central Africa is up, too, as is the US population of gray wolves and bald eagles. Recent research also shows that past conservation efforts have, at least temporarily, helped prevent a number of bird and mammal species from going extinct.
Still, it’s hard to see this species-focused model as a success, some scientists say, if the ultimate goal of conservation is to protect biodiversity and the countless benefits it provides. On this endeavor, the world has failed.
Since 1970, as the campaign to save pandas was ramping up, populations of most major animal groups including birds, mammals, and fish have declined by an average of 69 percent. Species without popular appeal are often worse off. One-fifth of reptiles such as crocodiles and turtles are now threatened with extinction. Mussels are in peril, as are corals — two animals that provide essential services for us and other creatures. (The latter, for example, provide shelter for fish and safeguard coastal communities from flooding. Popularity isn’t always a sign of ecological importance.)
Furthermore, parks designed to protect charismatic species don’t always safeguard other animals. A 2020 study in the journal Nature, for example, found that four species of large carnivores (the leopard, snow leopard, wolf, and an Asian dog called a dhole) have declined across panda habitat since the mid-20th century. Another study, published in 2021, found that populations of several species that overlap with giant pandas, including the Asiatic black bear, Chinese serow, and forest musk deer, have all plummeted, as well. (Panda preserves may have slowed these species’ declines.)
“Panda conservation doesn’t appear to be benefiting other species, or the wider ecosystem,” Gilchrist wrote about the 2020 study. “These findings shake the foundations of one of conservation’s most enduring ideas — that investing time and money into protecting particular large, influential species can pay dividends for the other species and habitats they coexist with.”
Put another way, “you’re essentially sleepwalking into losing biodiversity by focusing resources on specific species,” Gilchrist told Vox.
Breeding animals in captivity — now a widespread practice among zoos — also has questionable benefits for wild populations, according to some researchers. “Captive breeding is not a conservation strategy,” said Jillian Ryan, a researcher who wrote her dissertation at the University of South Australia on panda conservation.
Zoos “carefully breed their animals as if they might be called upon at any moment to release them, like Noah throwing open the doors to the ark,” Emma Marris wrote in the 2021 book Wild Souls: Freedom and flourishing in the non-human world. “But that day of release never quite seems to come.”
Zoos rarely reintroduce animals to the wild because they don’t often survive, Ryan said.
A dozen or so captive pandas have been released in China so far, and at least a few of them have died. The first panda scientists ever released, named Xiang Xiang (or “Lucky”), died in 2007, less than a year after his return to the wild. He likely fell out of a tree following a fight with wild-born pandas, according to multiple news reports.
“Any reintroduction program has an inherent challenge: You’re increasing the potential for the animal to die,” said Jake Owens, director of conservation at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. “The nice thing about zoos is that they do provide really high care.”
Owens and some other researchers argue that captive breeding can be an essential tool to avert extinction. It’s helped species like the endangered California condor recover, he says. Zoos and breeding facilities also help people fall in love with pandas, he said, which has put pressure on China to conserve their habitat.
But using zoo animals as inspiration for conservation has its limits, Marris argues. “There’s no unambiguous evidence that zoos are making visitors care more about conservation or take any action to support it,” she writes. People go to the zoo, she added, to be entertained.
Some scholars also argue that campaigns to save charismatic animals have distorted the human relationship with nature. Pandas, and most other highly charismatic species, are only visible in zoos or protected areas far from cities, reinforcing the idea that nature is something to look at, something apart from ourselves. Yet we all exist within ecosystems and depend on the services they provide, from water purification to crop pollination.
Indeed, most of the world’s remaining biodiversity exists alongside humanity — all 8 billion of us. To conserve wildlife, people will need to steward the plants and animals in their own backyards, in cities, in places they consider their home, said David Jachowski, a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University.
The environmental movement is changing. In recent decades, large environmental groups have adopted a more ecosystem-scale approach to their work.
In a previous interview with Vox, Marco Lambertini, then the head of WWF International, said that using pandas and tigers to inspire the public to care about wildlife was incredibly effective. That approach helped WWF grow into the world’s largest environmental organization. But he acknowledged that the nonprofit could have done a better job at “connecting the dots,” linking wildlife to ecosystems and all the benefits they provide for people. (WWF told Vox that ecosystem-based approaches have always been core to the organization’s strategy.)
Perhaps, then, it doesn’t make sense to have a single species as the mascot for conservation.
If there were one animal to represent the movement to conserve the natural world, the panda is probably the wrong one. It could be the weasel, Jachowski says; they’re predators that help sustain the food chain. Other researchers have argued that even earthworms would be better candidates.
Worms and weasels might not have the appeal of pandas. But they’re linchpins in a complex web of life that’s unraveling before our eyes. To sustain these and so many other underrated animals — the moths and flies, the bats and shrews — is to sustain the world’s ecosystems. It is to sustain ourselves.
Benji Jones is a senior environmental reporter at Vox, covering biodiversity loss and climate change. Before joining Vox, he was a senior energy reporter at Insider. Benji previously worked as a wildlife researcher.