Panda Protection Pays Off

China’s giant panda reserves have been calculated to do far more than just protect the pandas.

Fuwen Wei

China has set aside sixty-seven reserves for the protection of giant pandas, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, and their habitat, but it turns out the reserves protect much more than just the giant pandas. “The biodiversity of these reserves is among the highest in the temperate world, covering many of China’s endemic species,” according to a new study. The authors of the study assigned values to the reserves’ ecosystem services—the benefits that humans gain from the natural environment and properly functioning ecosystems—and found that giant pandas pay back far more than what it costs to protect them.

A team of scientists led by conservation biologist Fuwen Wei of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, mapped land use and assessed the status of giant panda populations from four large-scale, national studies conducted in 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010. Using data collected through a meta-analysis of previous scientific studies, the team assigned dollar values to the provisioning, regulatory, and cultural ecological services provided by giant pandas and the sixty-seven reserves. Provisioning services included such operations as growing crops and harvesting firewood; regulatory services included such benefits as carbon sequestration from forests and water filtration from wetlands. Cultural services ranged from recreational and tourism opportunities on the reserves, to funds generated from the use of giant pandas in popular culture, such as the box office gross of the movie Kung Fu Panda.

The team estimated the total value of the panda reserves’ ecosystem services to be US $2.6 to $6.9 billion per year in 2010—roughly ten to twenty-seven times the cost of maintaining the current system of giant panda reserves in China. “This is likely a conservative estimate,” says team member Robert Costanza, an ecological economist at the Australian National University in Canberra, adding that the numbers could be refined with the addition of primary research.

The study helps support China’s efforts to restore and protect ecosystems—work that is mandated through a federal planning process aimed at developing China into an ecological civilization. “China is beginning to understand the negative effects of air and water pollution, and the other ecological impacts of rapid industrialization,” says Costanza. “They need to do something about it, and they are.” (Current Biology)