Blessed to be a witness

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Wednesday, March 9th

Cuteness: 1; evolution: nil

Anyone who tries to use the remarkable nature of evolution to prove the existence of God through 'intelligent design' really needs to explain the panda.

In evolutionary terms, the panda is an incompetent buffoon, albeit an amiable one. Despite having cleverly evolved an extra thumb to oppose its other five fingers, giving it an adorable anthropomorphic nature when it's feeding, it also suffers from a huge catalogue of ridiculous genetic mishaps.

Mmmm, bamboo

It eats only bamboo. However, it is so inefficient in the digestion of its sole foodstuff that it can only absorb 2% of what it ingests - panda poos are basically raw bamboo - so an adult panda has to find and eat 14kg of bamboo every single day to remain alive. Due to the massive amount of harvesting, munching and inefficient processing it needs to do to its food, it has hardly any energy to do anything else.

Add to this that they live alone in the forest, rarely forming social groups, yet that they're extremely particular about who they mate with (or "fall in love" as the Breeding Centre video told us), and have almost no energy for making sweet panda love anway. Furthermore, if they do manage to get pregnant, their babies are born in an embyonic state, but with no handy marsupial pouch in which they can reach fœtal maturity, requiring the mummy panda to hold the ickle baby in her hand for months until it can be put on the ground, meaning she can hardly feed herself. And worse still, first-time mothers have absolutely no idea what to do with their babies, and often bat them around like a cat plays with a mouse, until they die. With all these things going against them, the panda is a creature that is just destined for extinction.

If Deus really is ex machina, then He must have had a serious hangover the day he conceived the panda. That they evolved to be so spectacularly inefficiently specialised in the first place is incredible - they must have had absolute free rein over the hillsides of China for millions of years - but that they have survived into the 21st century is nothing short of miraculous (pun intended).

None of which facts diminish the fact that they're just unbelievaby adorable. When we visited the Breeding Centre, we just melted. We had to get there at feeding time, due to their doing nothing but lying around digesting at other times of the day. We crept up to the first enclosure, and there was a big fat panda sitting sprawled on his arse like Homer Simpson in front of the TV, delicately munching handfuls of bamboo leaves like they were Doritos.

Too cute to live?

We were ushered from enclosure to enclosure, marvelling at how sweet and funny these creatures are, and eventually came to the baby panda nursery, where these 6-month-to-a-year balls of fur were rolling around, playing with a football, and running after the keeper who was their foster mother (these being babies who had to be rescued from their incompetent mothers within minutes of their birth). Our grins and silent glances were summed up by the coachload of Japanese tourists who arrived a couple of minutes later screaming "kawaii!!!" at the top of their lungs and clapping their hands, right next to the 'Please be quiet' sign.

Also cute was the red panda baby that we paid 50 yuan for M to hold - a tourist gimmick to be sure, but the money all goes to the breeding centre, and as the sign said, our donation proved our benificence. The red pandas are actually less human, and more like big fat racoons, but adorable nonetheless.

The breeding centre has been remarkably successful in producing pandas that survive - mature pandas bred there now number in the hundreds. But, as Ricky Gervais says, they're not meeting us halfway.

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