DURHAM, N.C., Sept. 16 (UPI) -- Trickle-down economics may be bunk, but new research suggests trickle-down conservation is real and working -- at least in China.
In China, protecting pandas is big business. Each year, millions of dollars go towards conservation efforts and breeding program, all in the name of saving the panda.
Some analysts have criticized the financial drain of such efforts, saying money spent protecting panda could do more environmental good elsewhere. It would be wiser, the argument goes, for such large sums to be spent on the protection of more biologically diverse habitat.
But according to scientists at Duke University, panda money -- and the conservation efforts it funds -- benefits more than just pandas. In a new study published in the journal Conservation Biology, researchers compared the ideal habitat ranges of a variety of endangered species with the chunks of land set aside for panda protection.
They found considerable overlaps, as well as gaps.
"We wanted to know whether it serves as a protective umbrella for other species," study co-author Stuart L. Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke, said in a press release. "We found that the giant panda's geographical range overlaps with 70 percent of forest bird species, 70 percent of forest mammals, and 31 percent of forest amphibian species found only in mainland China."
Pimm says their survey also showed that a majority of the most vulnerable endemic species in China, those with very small and specific habitat ranges, are protected by easements aimed at preserving panda habitat.
"Many people have worried that in protecting the giant panda, we might be neglecting other species, but this isn't the case," said Binbin Li, the paper's lead author and a doctoral student working with Pimm.
Li said the focus on pandas can be used for greater good as that enthusiasm is refocused on broader conservation efforts in China. She hopes the new survey, which identifies the most significant gaps in habitat protection, is used by the Chinese government and conservation programs to better protect the panda's neighbors.
One of the main flaws in critiques of panda preservation, Popular Science blogger Dan Nosowitz pointed out, is the concept that reducing panda protections funds would result in boosts to more efficient conservation efforts.
"Zoos and governments spend money on pandas because they're symbolic, because they're big draws, and because it's a very prestigious thing to have a panda at your zoo or in your country," Nosowitz wrote. "Diverting money from saving pandas doesn't mean we'll have more money to save the Chinese giant salamander or the forest coconut tree, let alone cute animals like the Amur leopard or greater bamboo lemur."