Who says pandas have a problem procreating? In July Atlanta’s zoo had twins; a cub was then born at the Smithsonian zoo in Washington on August 23 and another one was delivered at a zoo in Madrid a week later. And zoo bosses in the Scottish capital Edinburgh are on tenterhooks waiting for what promises to be the second birth to make the front pages in Britain this summer, following the House of Windsor’s celebrated efforts in July.
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has announced that income jumped by more than £5 million ($7.8 million) to nearly £15 million last year, after the arrival of pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang. Visitor numbers increased by a little over half. The zoo has also trademarked the anglicised names of the bears (Sunshine and Sweetie). Makers of goods as diverse as cuddly toys and toilet paper, as well as vets and operators of animal sperm banks, have all been warned off.
Is having a panda to stay really that lucrative? The zoo’s chief executive is predicting that a cub would boost income by the same amount again, pushing its visitor numbers to about 1.2 million. But development agency Scottish Enterprise wasn’t so sure, so it commissioned an economic study of the panda effect. In the best case, it found that manic promotion of a new panda family could see the city earn an extra £27.6 million from the birth of a cub. But the analysis also suggested that visitor figures to other zoos usually fall from their first year peaks. For instance, Melbourne, the only zoo in the southern hemisphere with a panda cub, suffered a financial crisis the year after a cub was born.
Certainly, news of the cub’s arrival in Washington did little to improve the mood of Timothy Lavin, a self-professed hater of the bears. For starters they’re hopeless at breeding, Bloomberg’s Lavin fumed last week, with most cubs in captivity born from artificial insemination. Pandas in the wild don’t do much better, he went on, citing an earlier view of Chris Packham, a wildlife activist, that the panda as a species “has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac” and are “possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half-century”.
The other problem is that pandas aren’t paying their way, Lavin complains. Zoos spend as much as $1 million a year renting each bear from the Chinese and can expect an invoice for $600,000 more if a cub appears whilst they’re in residence. Then there are upkeep costs for habitat, zookeepers and the bamboo that the bears consume, making them five times more costly than elephants, the next most expensive animal.
But Scottish newspaper The Herald had more sympathy for its Chinese visitors, noting that pandas are “sensitive and shy animals” which shun contact with humans, making them far-from-suited to their commercial careers.
“Their soulful eyes disguise the suffering they endure when they are carted around from zoo to zoo as profitable marketing tools,” the editorial complained. “Besieged by an onslaught of visitors, artificially and invasively bred and denied their freedom, the bears are the only ones not reaping benefits from the hoopla that surrounds them.”
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