I recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine – hugging a giant panda. In fact, this dream can be yours too, for the incredible donation of 1300 RMB (around $200 USD) to the Chengdu Panda Breeding Center, located in the north part of Sichuan province’s capital city. I, too, at first balked at the price. However, there’s something about those charismatic little faces, furry bodies, and sweet disposition that just melts your heart. Before you know it, you are pushing people out of the way to throw your money at the opportunity for some one-on-one time with one of China’s national treasures.

A quick web search of panda conservation revealed an overwhelming number of articles questioning the value of saving the giant panda. WWF estimated that in 2004 there were around 1,600 pandas left in the wild, which makes the species extremely rare. Zoos who are lucky enough to borrow a giant panda from China will spend around a million dollars a year.

My friend Max, who just started working for WWF in Chengdu, reminded me that his organization doesn’t support panda breeding because it takes the focus away from habitat conservation. Breeding programs such as the one I visited in Chengdu have been breeding “artificial” pandas that are not well-suited for release into the wild, according to this article of Xiang Xiang, the only captive-bred panda sent back into the wild. Despite aggressive wilderness skills training, Xiang Xiang didn’t survive in the wild for long, and less than a year later they found his dead body in the woods.

This begs the question – what, if not eventual release to rebuild wild panda numbers – is the purpose of captive breeding programs in China and in zoos all over the world? To keep alive a species whose greatest utility is pride for China, as well as tourism and revenue generation? I tried to find out how much revenue a year the Chengdu Panda Breeding Center generates, but wasn’t able to come up with any hard numbers.