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David Thomas: The world's most useless creatures

Pandas are the WAGs of the animal kingdom: superficially attractive, but talentless

Bloody pandas. Tian Tian and Yang Guang have come to Edinburgh and we're supposed to be thrilled and a little bit glowy at the internationally co-operative "ooh aren't they adorable?" mood-enhancing fabulousness of it all. But why? Pandas are useless, antisocial, frankly rather boring animals. Their rise to global triumph, as a symbol of all things furry, is a telling commentary on our obsession with appearance over substance; for saccharine sentimentality over objective reason and for wishful thinking over harsh reality. Essentially, they are the WAGs of the animal kingdom: superficially attractive in an obvious sort of way, but entirely lacking in any genuine accomplishment.

As anything other than marketing tools, pandas are one of evolution's less successful products. Built to be carnivores, they actually subsist on a diet of almost exclusively bamboo. So they are severely under-supplied with the protein, fats and assorted other nutrients a decent steak would provide. Not that they could ever hunt any steak-bearing prey, because they lack the energy to do anything very much except stuff their guts with all the bamboo that isn't doing them any good. They are notoriously rubbish at sex and their physical limitations are so acute that they even avoid steep slopes as just a bit too much of an effort.

That these ridiculous creatures have become the global symbol of wildlife preservation only illustrates the way in which the conservation movement so often appeals to the kitten-cuddling nitwits who pretend to love animals. A shark is an infinitely more impressive creature, perfectly adapted to the task of swimming, killing and eating and far more deserving of preservation. But since it lacks cuteness and since the creatures it eats sometimes include humans, it is oddly absent from animal-charity logos.

Come to think of it, the shark would make a much better symbol for the Chinese government than the panda. For the past half century, the Chinese have exploited the West's baffling weakness for pandas to distract us from the true nature of successive Communist regimes.

All through the brutally repressive years of the Cultural Revolution, Mao was lobbing pandas at Western zoos. Edward Heath, for example, brought Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching back to London following a trip to China in 1974, much as Neville Chamberlain brought a piece of paper back from Munich in 1938. Now we live in an age of undeclared techno-war in which an increasingly wealthy, muscle-flexing China is making massive efforts to steal Western patents, hack into government and corporate computer systems and undermine our cyber defences.

China is arguably a far more dangerous adversary than the Soviet Union ever was. But what do we care? We've got two bloody pandas.