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Are giant pandas worth saving?

By Kate Snow

Rock Center Correspondent

Who wouldn’t want to fly across the world and spend a week with giant pandas? They are undeniably cute. Everyone is obsessed with those black and white fuzzy faces. We celebrate when one is born at a zoo. We know their names. We’ll watch a YouTube video of them over and over again. This one, which shows a baby panda sneezing, has more than 150 million hits. I dare you not to click the link. 

For this story, we traveled to Chengdu, China, a city of 14 million people. It’s the capital of the Sichuan province in southwest China. Chengdu is known for spicy Sichuan chili dishes that make your tongue go numb, but also for being the hometown of the giant panda. Back in 1987, when it became apparent that pandas were seriously endangered in the wild, the Chinese created the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Starting with just six pandas from the wild, they’ve successfully bred more than 100 pandas.

Here, female pandas are monitored constantly to pinpoint the one day of the year – or the few hours -- when they’ll be able to conceive. They are typically artificially inseminated. Test tubes of panda sperm are kept in vats of liquid nitrogen. Mothers stay with their babies for a while but they’re eventually put back on the breeding program so the cycle can start again.

Sarah Bexell, an American who has worked at Chengdu for 13 years, says the lives of the staff revolve around the fertility cycle of the female pandas. “When our cubs are about to arrive, some of our staff live there 24-7,” she said.  She’s also a coauthor of a new book called, “Giant Pandas: Born Survivors.”

The cubs I saw on this visit were four months old and just learning to walk. Their fur was soft as silk. 

Too much for one species?

The work done at Chengdu and other breeding centers costs millions of dollars a year. Experts believe more money is probably being spent to save the giant panda than any other species in the world. 

But is that a good idea?  

While this may sound like heresy to panda lovers, is it possible that we’re spending too much to save the giant panda? 

“I think we have to make tough choices,” British wildlife expert, Chris Packham, said. “I think that, ultimately, we have to be pragmatic as well as sentimental. You know, we can't allow our heart to rule our conservation head…  And if we channel this much into just one species, then many others, which could be far better helped, many other not just species, but communities and ecosystems, could be better protected at the expense of one fluffy, cuddly bear.”

Packham is in the minority here, but a growing number of scientists agree. 

Bexell and her colleagues at Chengdu’s breeding center are not among them. They firmly believe the panda is worth saving. And they worry that without the panda as a symbol for the conservation movement, people might not give any money to saving any species at all.

“Where would that money go? Maybe people would go and buy a new iPod instead. You know, instead of throwing that money towards conservation,” Bexell said. 

Humans pushed giant pandas to the brink of extinction, Bexell said, and it is up to us to find a way to save them. 

“I think pandas are symbolic. We all love them. We all want to share the earth with them. And if we truly cannot save space for giant pandas, what does that say about us as a species? And how could we ever have hope for any of the others if we can't save the one that we profess to love the most?”

Editor's Note: Kate Snow's full report airs Fri., Feb. 22 at 10pm/9c on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.