By Dingzhen Liu, Xuemei Yao and Chris Newman, 4th September 2023
The giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca is a charismatic species endemic to China. Its cute appearance and iconic status have made it popular with people around the world, and it has become a flagship species for biodiversity conservation. Although the panda is already much-loved, further improving the public’s knowledge about and appreciation of this iconic animal makes it more likely that people will support efforts to protect the species and its habitats in the wild. Unsurprisingly for an animal that strongly resembles a cuddly teddy bear and that most people will never have the chance to observe in its natural habitat, exhibits of captive giant pandas are popular attractions. The arrival of a panda at a zoo often leads to a significant increase in visitors: for example, the pair loaned to Edinburgh Zoo in 2012 increased visitor numbers by 200%. As of July 2023, there were around 22 zoos and wildlife parks in 19 countries housing giant pandas loaned by China as part of an international collaborative project, as well as numerous locations exhibiting giant pandas within China. Recently, however, there has been much debate in China about whether pandas should be loaned internationally after Twitter posts reported the poor health status of a pair of pandas at Memphis Zoo in the USA.
As a justification of keeping such charismatic animals in captivity and exhibiting them to the public, it has long been argued that zoos and wildlife parks can play an important role in global conservation efforts and in spreading interest in and knowledge of wild animals. But whether, and if so, by how much, they really succeed in educating visitors and motivating them to adopt pro-conservation attitudes and behaviours is rarely examined. In our study, we looked at the sociodemographic background of visitors to panda exhibits and whether viewing pandas and engaging with various types of information materials at the exhibit contributed to a greater understanding of their biology and the threats they face in the wild.
We wanted to find out what types of people are that are drawn to a giant panda exhibit and what level of knowledge visitors have of the species following their visit. To do this, we used questionnaires in three city zoos and five wildlife parks in China, asking visitors to giant panda exhibits to provide some sociodemographic information about themselves before answering several questions on panda biology and behaviour.
Overall, visitors answered just 60% of our survey questions correctly, with the only consistently well-answered question being about panda diet, it being generally well known that pandas eat bamboo! This was somewhat disappointing and suggests that panda exhibits in China may be under-delivering on educating visitors about biodiversity and that more should be done to promote pro-conservation attitudes and actions. As panda exhibits attract a huge number of visitors in zoos and wildlife parks, more engagement with conservation issues beyond supplying information boards would benefit educational potential. Despite this apparent lack of educational value, overall, visitors were very satisfied with their visits at the zoos and wildlife parks, stating that they enjoyed their experience and that the exhibits were delivering engaging content.
We found that more women than men visited the exhibits during our surveys, but that men were, on average, slightly more knowledgeable about giant panda biology than women. The majority of respondents were aged 18–35 years, and these younger respondents had the best knowledge about giant pandas and also expressed an interest in learning more about them using social media. The formal education level of respondents also had a positive effect on the number of questions they answered successfully.
To explore how the educational potential of panda exhibits could be improved further, we also asked visitors how they would prefer to learn about pandas. Visitors favoured interactive displays, followed by online videos, on-site explanations and content delivered over the popular messaging app WeChat. In contrast, the least preferred media were the blogging site Weibo, booklets and information boards. These results suggest that adding interactive devices to exhibits could be a more effective way to deliver information about panda biology, behaviour and habitat. We also recommend that media used at exhibits should be targeted at specific age groups and that the different preferences of women and men are considered when designing on-site educational material. Beyond zoo exhibitions, we advocate for the integration of biodiversity and conservation into the formal education curriculum on ecosystems and ecology in China, with the panda serving as an umbrella species, as conserving pandas can also benefit other wildlife that share their habitat.
In the next phase of our research, we will build on the results of our study by comparing visitors’ knowledge of pandas before and after seeing the exhibit, to find out the extent to which information provided by the zoo improves their existing knowledge.
The article ‘Giant panda loan exhibitions in China underdeliver on educating visitors: insights and recommendations for improvements’ is available open access in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.