THEY arrived in Edinburgh as the city’s new superstars. Tian Tian and Yang Guang brought worldwide attention to the Capital when they rolled off the plane on December 4 last year.
They were met by a frenzied press pack eager to catch a glimpse of the pair, and an even keener public who had been built up to fever pitch by months of panda- monium talk.
Twelve months on and the draw of the UK’s only giant pandas shows no signs of diminishing.
Visitors to the zoo quadrupled immediately after their arrival and since then more than half a million people have been to see the pair. The visitors have included Princess Anne, the Chinese ambassador to the UK and even film star Nicole Kidman.
So with such big business at stake, what is the secret to keeping Sunshine and Sweetie happy so far from home?
Panda keeper Michael Livingstone, 24, has worked with the zoo for three years. He has managed to build up a relationship with them and is aware of their quirks.
“When the pandas first arrived, we stuck to the same four staff because we wanted them to be used to seeing the same faces,” he says.
“Since then they have built up a relationship with us – they can tell who we are visually and by the sounds of our voices.
“Yang Guang will come up to the bars when he hears us in the kitchen from the off-show indoor area.
“They are not like the other animals we have here. Other animals have settled in to a routine very quickly, but with the pandas we have had to build a routine around what they want. They are different and complex.
“We had to respond to how sensitive they are – for instance, we discovered they don’t like high winds.
“They are very picky about the bamboo the eat, and what they like one week might change the next.”
He remembers the excitement on the day the pandas arrived after such a long build-up.
“My first glimpse of them was when they came out of their transport crate in to their new enclosure,” he recalls.
“Very quickly their personalities started to come through.
“Straight away I knew Yang Guang, the male panda, was more bold and loved the attention. He’s more of a ‘people panda’.
“Tian Tian, the female, likes her own way. She will be very friendly towards you when she wants food, other times she wants to go off on her own.
“Tian Tian gets upset if you delay bringing her food – you can set your watch by her.”
Understanding of the nutritional needs, breeding behaviour and the things needed to manage the zoo’s “very different” pandas has developed hugely over the last 12 months.
An on-site nursery has been set up and it is hoped that next year 15 per cent of the pandas’ bamboo supplies will be produced on site.
The pandas live in a £250,000 purpose-built home with two separate enclosures and are only introduced to each other during mating season.
After a high-profile and unsuccessful attempt at breeding the pandas earlier this year, the zoo has renewed hopes that 2013 could see the arrival of cubs – the first panda babies to be born on British soil.
An updated approach to breeding will include simulating natural lighting inside their enclosure and increasing the amount of time the pandas spend in each other’s enclosures in the lead up to mating. Tian Tian has had twin cubs in the past and Yang Guang has also fathered cubs, though not as a pair together.
Mr Livingstone adds: “We were hopeful that we would get cubs in the first year, but as they had just arrived it wasn’t something we found very disappointing.
“Hopefully next year we can use the knowledge that we have gained from the last breeding season to be successful.
“The pandas are still as popular as they have ever been, and when Tian Tian and Yang Guang do have cubs, things are going to go crazy.”
Arren Sagar, 25, is part of the “Panda Patrol”, a troupe of 14 trained helpers who will guide visitors through the enclosure.
“Most days, the tours are packed out,” he says.
Mr Sagar, who has worked at the zoo for 18 months – or “pre-panda” – adds: “The pandas really capture people’s imaginations, everybody finds out something they didn’t know before.
“During the summer there were as many as 45 panda tours. The first surprise people tend to get is that the pandas are not huge.
“It also comes as a surprise to many that the animals don’t live together.
“It has been 18 years since pandas were on display in the UK and they hold an international appeal.”
He adds: “We’ve actually had tears from some people because getting to see a panda has been a lifetime dream.”
• 500,000 people have visited the pandas in the last year.
• Edinburgh Zoo is on track to see 800,000 visitors by the end of the year, compared with 600,000 last year.
• Membership of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) has gone up by 20 per cent.
• Pandas are the most popular species for adoption, making up 23 per cent of the 420 RZSS animal adoptions.
• More than 70,000 cuddly toy pandas have been sold.
£4m bamboost to the coffers
EDINBURGH Zoo’s pandas have brought in at least £4 million since their arrival, it emerged today.
Around 200,000 extra visitors are expected to have flocked to Corstorphine Hill by the end of the year to catch a glimpse of the pair.
An incredible 70,000 cuddly toys have also been sold in the gift shop on the back of panda-mania.
The pandas are on a £6m, ten-year lease from the Chinese government.
Darren McGarry, head of animals at Edinburgh Zoo, said: “The past year has been a very busy and exciting time – it’s been buzzing. The zoo can be pretty quiet in winter, but since the pandas’ arrival it has been busy all the time.
“We’ve had 500,000 visitors come to see them and we’re on track to reach 800,000 people at the zoo this year. Last year the figure was 600,000.
“Lots of animals are exciting for people to visit at Edinburgh Zoo, but the visitor numbers show the giant pandas are the most exciting animal we have here – there’s nothing quite like them.
“We have people coming to visit the pandas not just from Scotland, but the whole of the UK and, in some cases, Europe.”
Based on an average ticket price at the zoo of £13.50 and with an average cuddly toy coming in at around £20, the pandas would have brought in an extra £4.1m to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in their first year.
The next year brings with it another chance for the pandas to breed, and things have already started to get under way, with male Yang Guang already beginning to fatten himself up with bamboo in anticipation.
Zoo bosses are planning to resort to switching off the lights in a new bid to help the pair breed. It is thought the pandas’ failure to reproduce last spring could have been caused by zoo attendants leaving the lights on after sunset. This meant conditions did not match those outside, which may have disturbed their biological clocks.
Mr McGarry, above, said: “Next year, things will be a bit interesting. In terms of breeding, we will dim the lighting and we’re going to give the male access to the female’s enclosure so he can get used to her scent.”
Iain Valentine, director of research and conservation at the zoo, said much has been learnt about the species over the last 12 months.
“Although we are a world leader in the science and art of animal husbandry, we at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland have learnt an enormous amount about Tian Tian and Yang Guang, but also about giant pandas as an entire species. This knowledge is vital to the global conservation panda effort.
“The core focus of RZSS as a charity is conservation, research and education. Over the period of the last 12 months we have achieved a great deal in these crucial areas, of which we are extremely proud,” he said.