TODAY   |  February 23, 2013

Controversy over giant panda conservation

With so few pandas left in the wild, scientist have been breeding them in captivity with the hope of setting them free. However, the high-tech, expensive operation has some suggesting that the money could be better spent on several species instead of just one. NBC’s Kate Snow reports.

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>>> giant pandas are one of the world's most high-profile endangered species even though it might sound shocking. there are now critics who are asking whether efforts to save the adorable bears are really worth the money and effort. here's more.

>> reporter: it's easy to see why pandas are the poster bears of the conservation movement . they're cute.

>> they're very cute. they're incredibly cute.

>> reporter: sarah becsal, a conservationist, has been working in china at the research base of giant panda breeding for 13 years.

>> i think that infantile appearance engenders us to want to protect, protect, protect.

>> reporter: with so few pandas left in the wild, scientists have been breeding pandas in captivity with the home of one day setting them free. a high-tech, expensive operation. female pandas are anesthetized and artificially inseminated. here's the result -- these cubs are just four months old they're so cute and so little. we were allowed to go into the nursery and watch them sleeping, eating, and learning how to walk. it's almost become like an industry. you know, trying to make as many pandas as possible.

>> i would say that that's a fair way to explain it.

>> reporter: an industry dedicated to saving the panda. what could be wrong with that?

>> i think that pouring millions and millions of dollars into one species of albeit incredibly cute animal is salacious.

>> reporter: a wildlife expert for the bbc is one of a small but growing number of critics that think with so many species going extinct it makes no sense to spend so much money trying to save just one.

>> i don't want the panda to be extinct. but ultimately, let's not waste vast amounts of money trying to prevent it when we could use that money far more efficiently, far more optimally somewhere else.

>> reporter: he says all the pandas china's breeding will likely spend their lives in zoos, including zoos here in america, since china's industrial growth has left little space for them in the wild. and to have them as a zoo animal, to have them only living in captivity --

>> no point.

>> reporter: sarah doesn't believe that saving the panda even in the wild is a lost cause.

>> if we truly cannot save space for giant padas, how could -- pandas, how could we have hope for others if we can't save the one that we profess to love the most?

>> reporter: scientists are doing everything they can to save this icon of wildlife conservation . for "today," kate snow , china.