In one view, giant pandas are a flagship endangered species in need of funds and resources, which have helped raise the profile of animal conservation around the world.

Alternatively, they are furry black-and-white money pits, seemingly hell-bent on extinction, which divert much-needed funds from less adorable but equally deserving creatures.

One way or the other, people have strong opinions about whether we should bother saving giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca).

Now there is some hard evidence on whether saving pandas is genuinely worthwhile.

Thanks to its naturally cute appearance, and status as a global conservation icon, the panda attracts a disproportionate amount of conservation resources.

That has led people to ask: is saving the panda really worth it, when there are so many other species in need?

The answer may be "yes, it really is worth it".

According to a new study published in the journal Conservation Biology, all the efforts put into saving the giant panda are also having a positive effect on China's other vulnerable species.

"Many have worried that in protecting the giant panda, we might be neglecting other species, but this isn't the case," says lead author Binbin Li of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, US.

"The panda is the most iconic endangered species, so it seemed sensible for us to ask the very tough question of whether species were sheltering under its umbrella," says co-author Stuart Pimm, also at Duke University. "The fact is that many are."

Li and Pimm began by studying maps, compiled by hundreds of naturalists, showing the location of China's amphibians, birds, and mammals.

They focused on endemic species: those that are only found in China, and are therefore more vulnerable than widespread species.

They found that the endemic species were concentrated in the mountains of south-west China, especially in Sichuan Province: the exact places where the giant panda now survives.

The giant panda's geographical range overlapped with 70% of forest bird species, 70% of forest mammals, and 31% of forests.

The Chinese government and public are focused on panda conservation. Li says that makes it easier to establish new protected areas and corridors in the region.

To illustrate the power giant pandas now wield, Li explains an incident in which the Chinese government wanted to build a new section of railway. The original plan went right through a large panda habitat.

Within a fortnight, the Forestry Department had designated two new nature reserves in the area, forcing the railway to find a new route.

Despite the largely positive findings, the study did identify "gap species": animals that live in areas other than those set aside to protect pandas.

In particular, amphibians are being neglected in favour of mammal and bird species when it comes to conservation plans.

"There are some clear opportunities to encourage both the Chinese provinces and the national government to protect other areas," says Pimm.

"The fact that there's a lot of other species included in those reserves is a real bonus for conservation," says Ben Collen of University College London in the UK. "No one designed that. We got that for free."

He accepts the study's finding that, by concentrating on one species such as giant pandas, it is possible to protect a lot of other species at the same time.

"Conservation biologists love to look for shortcuts to how [we can] most cost-effectively protect biodiversity," says Collen.

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