Serving as the mascot of a world-renowned conservation organization, building diplomatic relationships between China and the world, playing protagonists in blockbuster movies — giant pandas have done it all. The public attention and adulation these animals garner make them star attractions at zoos and have helped pump billions into tailor-made conservation programs that have successfully brought the species back from the verge of extinction.
“They hit the lottery,” says Willam J. McShea, a wildlife ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who has studied giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in the wild. “They have gotten a lot of attention, and it has resulted in a turnaround for that population. That’s kind of rare in the conservation business.”
Often perceived as cuddly and cute, giant pandas hog the limelight with their iconic look — the black-and-white fur, big eyes and the button nose — instantly connecting with people’s emotions. “People go just like ‘it’s a baby bear,’” McShea says. “It’s always a baby, even when it’s 200 pounds [90 kilograms] in weight.”
Conservation efforts have successfully used this anthropomorphized discourse to gain traction for their cause. “Monetary investment in such universally pleasing campaigns are also much more significant than campaigns for other bears,” says Kartick Satyanarayan, CEO and co-founder of Wildlife SOS, a wildlife conservation organization in India.
In recent years, panda numbers have increased, and their geographical range has expanded, thanks to international and national efforts to save them. The species’ conservation status on the IUCN Red List improved in 2016 from endangered to vulnerable, although it’s still considered a threatened species.
Lead Image: A giant panda, a species endemic to China, which has benefited from extensive conservation funding and efforts. As a result, the panda numbers have been increasing and their geographical range expanding in recent years. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
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