THE long-awaited giant pandas are finally settling into their new home at Edinburgh Zoo after more than five years of negotiations to bring them to the Capital.
Tian Tian and Yang Guang – also known as Sweetie and Sunshine – touched down at Edinburgh Airport early yesterday afternoon following a 5000-mile, 11-hour flight chartered by four kilted pilots.
Bagpipes blasted and the crowds close to the runway burst into applause as the black and white bears – the first to reside in the UK for more than 17 years – were lowered from the FedEx Panda Express to face a red carpet reception.
It was ladies first as Tian Tian was number one to be cheered by her fans, rewarding admirers with a long stare. Shortly after a more boisterous Yang Guang showed his face, walking back and forth the length of his box before planting a paw on its window and appearing to wave a “hello”.
One of the first people to greet the bears was Evening News exclusive competition winner, six-year-old Maisie Dalton, who clutched a panda cuddly toy and donned an official Panda Tartan scarf and skirt to honour the grand arrival.
The panda pair, which Chinese officials yesterday dubbed their “national treasures”, were toasted with a quick nip of 12-year-old whisky before being transported to their new £300,000 panda pad.
And signs suggest it might not be long until we see the arrival of a baby “McPanda” – an affectionate nickname by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – as Edinburgh Zoo bosses yesterday revealed that they are “fully confident” the pair will breed in March.
As the panda-mobiles transported Edinburgh’s newest residents to the attraction, hundreds of excited children and adults stood at the sidelines and enthusiastically waved Chinese and Scottish flags. Others, many dressed in panda costumes, shook their helium-filled panda balloons and dozens of Chinese lanterns hung from surrounding trees. A pipe band played Scotland the Brave as the panda vans moved slowly into the zoo’s gates.
It is hoped that the A-list arrivals will be officially unveiled on December 16 – although panda bosses said that their “health was the key” and admitted the introduction to the public might have to be postponed.
Even though the chilly temperatures stooped to as low as zero degrees, Edinburgh Zoo bosses pointed out that the conditions weren’t dissimilar to the panda’s home country.
Zoo chief executive Hugh Roberts beamed as the pandas settled into their new home, calling the occasion “a Christmas gift for Scotland”.
Talking on a panel with fellow officials, including Secretary of State Michael Moore and Qin Gang from the Chinese Embassy, Mr Roberts joked: “One usually says about a panda that he eats, shoots and leaves. In this case, he eats, shoots and arrives.
“It’s so wonderful that Tian Tian and Yang Guang are here. The Chinese promised they’d be here by the end of the year and they are – a Christmas gift.”
Mr Roberts revealed to the Evening News that he is “confident” the pandas will produce a cub when Tian Tian comes into season in March.
Iain Valentine, head of conservation at the zoo and one of the key panda carers, agreed. He said: “They already call to one another and the signs are good. We made sure they could see one another during the flight as Tian Tian became quite lethargic. We were a bit worried about her at one point as she wasn’t drinking or eating, but on seeing Yang Guang she perked up and recovered.”
Chinese official Mr Gang shared their optimism as he pointed out that Yang Guang’s father, Pan Pan, had produced a record of no less than 107 cubs.
Mr Valentine, who will head numerous research projects as he works alongside Chinese delegates, travelled back to the UK yesterday along with Darren McGarry, head of animals, and a Chinese vet. A dedicated team from the panda’s base, the Bifenxia breeding centre in Chengdu, will remain in the Capital for up to a month.
He explained that imminent projects will include looking at a vaccination for distemper – a disease pandas are prone to – and nutritional work to help their problematic digestive systems. There will also be a focus on genetic and cognitive research.
Mr Valentine revealed that the “cemented” relationship between the Chinese and the zoo would make it “much easier” for the attraction to secure further species in future. He said: “There are some very special Chinese species and now that we’ve got the giant pandas, we can talk about bringing something else to the zoo.”
He hinted: “I’ve got my eye on something.”
Those itching to see the A-list arrivals will have to wait until at least December 16, when they will be officially unveiled after a settling-in period. RZSS members can sneak an early peek at special showings a couple of days earlier.
Four special Panda-Cams, however, will start broadcasting their antics across the web within the next week.
The loan of the bears is for 10 years, costing the zoo £600,000 per year. Their annual bamboo feast will cost £70,000 per year.