Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Monday 5 December 2011

Don't panda to it.

TWO giant pandas have arrived at Edinburgh Zoo and from the hullabaloo you'd think they'd got there on roller skates.

The zoo is predicting one million extra visitors a year and its ticket website crashed. The First Minister of Scotland has flown to Beijing in some kind of bizarre exchange trip to praise Sino-Scots business deals (will he be expected to breed while he's there?) and people have been lining the streets in panda hats to welcome the new inmates.

Sunshine and Sweetie, or Yang Guang and TianTian if you prefer, will live in matching £275,000 cages, be fed £70,000 worth of organic bamboo every year flown in from Amsterdam, and have their movements monitored 24/7 by webcams. Seeing as they defecate 40 times a day it's probably something for those (and I could name a few celebrities who'll be logging on) with niche tastes.

To listen to the PR gumpf you might think this was all about saving the panda so it can roam the Chinese countryside once again. In the space of half an hour yesterday the First Minister for Scotland, his deputy, and the UK Secretary of State for Scotland had all issued press releases claiming credit and today Saint Nicholas of Clegg piped up about how "delighted" he is that two creatures will be spending the next ten years locked up there.

I'd be a lot more delighted if all this political effort and diplomacy had been spent on getting Abdelbaset al Megrahi the Lockerbie bomber shipped in myself, but you can't have everything.

What no-one is saying is the unwelcome truth; these animals are money-spinners, and no-one in authority is seriously interested in saving them because if they did that they wouldn't be worth as much.

Zoo tickets are free but already they are flogging panda toys, hats, key rings, a panda iThing dock and a "collapsible eco-bag", whatever that is when it's at home.

If they get around to making a baby - a process made considerably more difficult by the fact pandas aren't bothered about sex and the males are usually under-endowed - the millions the zoo expects to make will go through the roof. I doubt they'll spend the cash on rescuing animals in captivity.

In return the zoo bosses are paying the People's Republic of China £6.4m over 10 years, some of which may go on conservation but probably not all of it, and none of which is going to make a damn bit of difference to the pandas.

They are dying for two simple reasons: firstly, human beings are ruining their habitats, cutting down trees and the many types of bamboo they need to eat, and forcing them from the lowlands into mountains where there's even less food. And secondly because pandas are a bit rubbish. They're rubbish at sex, they're rubbish at evolving, they're rubbish at everything except sitting and shitting.

What they're good at is making money. There are twice as many pandas in the wild than we had thought - about 3,000 - but we're not being told about that because it doesn't make us rush to Edinburgh Zoo and buy panda mittens. And breeding in captivity to release into the wild is all well and good, but their habitat is still disappearing and unless that is reversed you are merely consigning those offspring to lingering starvation.

Any baby born to Sunshine and Sweetie is more than likely to return to the panda factory in China to enter the breeding programme. It will spend its life in a cage, encouraging us to buy black-and-white toys we don't need while being pampered beyond all recognition with a veterinary regime which costs five times more than it does to look after an elephant, and we will continue to destroy its habitat with our demand for Chinese-made panda hats while other species that we could help don't get the same money spent on them.

Would you do the same to a dodo? Run a conservation programme costing millions to keep a breeding population alive so people could come and gawp at them, rather than learn that perhaps it might be better to have not done the things which killed them in the first place? Or a Tyrannosaurus - a creature which was highly evolved but just came to the end of its run? The same thing will happen to humans one day. Would you want to be locked in a glass house so sentient giant cockroaches could ooh and aah every time you went to the toilet, and hoped you took a fancy to the other genetic tail-end-Charlie they'd moved in next door?

Pandas have a strong tug on the collective conscience - they are symbols of those species under threat from the influence of man, they are cute, and so rare it's lovely for most of us to have the chance to see them

But people who buy those panda hats and go gooey-eyed over their annual ham-fisted efforts at reproduction are not saving the pandas. They are keeping them locked up, keeping them threatened, and drawing out their inevitable demise in a way which does not dignify them or us.

Saving them properly is simply not going to happen until someone finds a way to make as many millions from pandas in a tree as they do from pandas in a zoo.

Foxes have more of a work ethic.