With its cute and comical look, and its two lovely black eyes, the panda makes a great symbol. Just over 50 years ago, its image was chosen for the newly created World Wildlife Fund. Today, it symbolises an altogether uglier reality, closer to human cynicism than animal conservation.
This week, it was announced that the two giant pandas hired by the Edinburgh Zoo from the Chinese government at a cost of £460,000 a year will be available for VIP visits. For £1,000, guests can have drinks, canapés and the chance to feed these luckless animals some bamboo. There have been the usual unconvincing denials of financial motives. This is "not about extra money", the zoo's chief executive has said, adding, in what would seem something of a self-contradiction, that his organisation "receives no extra funding".
Panda diplomacy, the use of rare, delicate mammals as part of deals between humans, has always been a squalid business. When, in 2011, after a campaign involving senior politicians and the Royal Family, the Chinese agreed to loan two pandas to Edinburgh Zoo, the country's ambassador inaccurately described the deal as "a gift to the people of the UK from China".
It was neither a gift nor was it particularly unique: the Chinese have become adept at greasing the wheels of trade by shipping pandas across the world. Apart from the dishonest PR, there has always been something whiffy about this.
The conservation argument, invariably deployed by politicians, is equally suspect. Alex Salmond once promised that, if Edinburgh landed the panda deal, "research will be carried out specifically in the field of oncology – an area of expertise in Scotland". Little has been heard of this claim recently, and it is anyway fairly meaningless. The only panda to have been released from captivity was quickly killed by wild pandas. The species, in other words, is being conserved exclusively for human enjoyment.
Admittedly, pandas serve their diplomatic purpose. Soon after the new arrivals were brought to Edinburgh, Salmond and his ministers expertly avoided offending their Chinese pals by absenting themselves during a visit by the Dalai Lama. The Scots gain, and so do the Chinese. It is the pandas, and the cause of conservation, which suffer.