It’s the Chinese New Year today – Happy Year of the Dragon to everyone – so a very good time to talk about pandas, China’s most dramatic export.

France now has a pair of pandas at Beauval. We visited there last summer and at the time we commented on how OTT the Chinese section of the park seemed to be, with statues, pagodas, lanterns but very few animals. Little did we know Beauval was gearing up for pandas. Certainly there was no mention of them at the zoo. But then they don’t sell batteries so they’re fairly clueless. A bit of advance publicity sur place wouldn’t have come amiss.

Anyway, Huang Huang and Yuang Zi arrived on 15th January to great excitement. They were the first pandas to set paw in France for eleven years. They were transported by FedEx in a specially painted aeroplane, and then by road in specially painted vans with a police escort from the airport to Beauval. Yes, you read that right – police escort. Your guess is as good as mine as to why! Whether it was to keep the pandas in, or panda-nappers out, who knows. But it was successful and the pandas arrived safely and probably very puzzled at their new home. The public will be let loose on the pandas on 11th February. They need a few weeks to settle in.

Huang Huang and Yuang Zi are here for 10 years at a cost of around €750,000. Beauval is remaining tightlipped about the exact sum. So expect a hike in the already fairly hefty entry charge. The money is apparently going towards protecting pandas in the wild in China. And heaven knows they need it since they are the world’s dopiest animals.

I saw Edward Heath’s pandas, Chia Chia and Ching Ching, at London Zoo in the 1970s. They just sat and ate bamboo, as you’d expect, and were generally the most boring animal in the zoo. I have been completely underwhelmed by pandas for a long time.

Whilst there is no doubt that they are very striking and harmless animals, let’s face it they’re hopeless. The female comes into heat for between 3 and 7 days once a year. So if either she or the male has a headache during that brief space of time, that’s it, the chance for making a baby panda has gone for another year. I saw a TV programme about pandas in an American zoo. The zookeepers were desperate for the pandas to breed and were monitoring Mrs Panda constantly for the telltale signs of her arousing herself from her usual semi-comatose, bamboo-munching state to being hormonal. The second they reckoned she was ready, they unleashed Mr Panda. He made a couple of extremely feeble attempts to mount her then gave up. Mrs P went all huffy and then the pair of them sat and sulked in opposite sides of the cage. (I hope this doesn’t remind you of anything!)

So the scientists swooped. They first knocked out Mr P and got busy with rubber gloves and syringes and extracted some semen, and then knocked out Mrs P and gave her AI. What a palaver. But it worked and a miniscule baby panda appeared 5 months later. It weighed 5 ounces. Baby pandas are 1/900th the size of their mama. I mean, come on. How pathetic is that! Human babies are around 1/15th to 1/20th of their mum’s size. Admittedly, delivering one of them hurts like blooming heck and traumatises you for life but it’s possible. Llama cria are roughly 1/8th to 1/10th of their mother’s weight, and you don’t hear them complaining. And what’s more, if a panda has  more than one cub, she has a breakdown. She is incapable of looking after two at the same time, so just leaves one to die. Pandas are severely survivally challenged. They really need to get their act together.