'Help our giant pandas' plea to China as Edinburgh Zoo was hit by Covid impact

The Scottish government went cap in hand to China to ask for help with country’s only resident Giant Pandas as Edinburgh Zoo struggled with the financial implications of the coronavirus lockdown.
Tian Tian in her enclosure at Edinburgh ZooTian Tian in her enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo
Tian Tian in her enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo

Tian Tian and Yang Guang are currently on loan at Edinburgh Zoo in decade-long deal with China due to end later this year.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) which runs the zoo, was forced to close the attraction to visitors when Scotland went into lockdown last year, and borrowed £5 million to help it stay afloat as it lost vital revenue while having to find £700,000 to look after animals in its care.

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Now, letters between the Scottish government and authorities in China, released under freedom of information laws, have revealed Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham asked Mr Chunliang Li, the Vice Administrator of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration in Beijing, for help in April last year.

Giant Panda Yang Guang at Edinburgh ZooGiant Panda Yang Guang at Edinburgh Zoo
Giant Panda Yang Guang at Edinburgh Zoo

China appears to have offered support, although the Scottish government has redacted details in their response.

In a letter dated April 23, Ms Cunningham describes the giant pandas at Edinburgh Zoo to Mr Li as "a great symbol of the friendship between Scotland and China".

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She adds: "Co-operation and solidarity between countries is ever more important at this challenging time as we collectively respond (sic) the COVID-19 global pandemic.

"My officials have been in touch with officials at Edinburgh Zoo, who have reported that the Giant Pandas are in good health with a plentiful supply of bamboo. They have also confirmed that, in line with government advice, the zoo is currently closed to visitors and it is anticipated that it will remain closed for a minimum of three months. This will of course have financial implications.

Panda plea: Roseanna Cunningham MSPPanda plea: Roseanna Cunningham MSP
Panda plea: Roseanna Cunningham MSP

"Any support that you can give to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which runs Edinburgh Zoo, during this difficult period, with regard to the Giant Panda conservation programme, would be very much appreciated."

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The Chinese Consul General in Edinburgh and the Secretary General of the China Wildlife Conservation Association were also copied into the letter.

Mr Li's reply, which is heavily redacted, reveals China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), and Edinburgh Zoo were in "close communication in giant panda keeping management, disease prevention and control, food sources, animal welfare and other related aspects to ensure the safety of giant pandas".

He closes: "I believe that through the joint efforts of both sides, we will surely be able to overcome the difficulties and the epidemic."

In a further letter to Mr Li, dated May 29, Ms Cunningham thanked Mr Li for his response, adding: "I am pleased that you are happy that the pandas are being well looked after during these challenging times.

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"I am grateful for your understanding of the pressures that the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland are currently facing and very much appreciate [redacted] will help to ensure that this important conservation project successfully endures through the pandemic."

The redacted passages make it impossible to tell the extent of any support offered by China, although a letter from Chair of the RZSS Trustees Jeremy Peat to Mairi Gougeon MSP states "we are, of course, following up the Consul General's kind offer of gloves and masks".

Asked for comment, the Scottish government said it had "nothing further to add". The RZSS also declined to comment.

RZSS Chief Executive David Field has described Yang Guang and Tian Tian - also known as Sunshine and Sweetie - as "part of the Edinburgh Zoo family".

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The Trust faced a financial crisis when Scotland went into lockdown, however, as most of its income comes from paying visitors. Last summer Mr Field said that the wildlife conservation charity was, "in zoological terms, an endangered animal".

In January this year he said RZSS had lost around £2 million last year and admitted that while the pandas had "made a tremendous impression" on visitors to Edinburgh Zoo over the last nine years, their future in Scotland remained unclear.

He added: "We have to seriously consider every potential saving and this includes assessing our giant panda contract and the cost of their daily care. At this stage, it is too soon to say what the outcome will be. We will be discussing next steps with our colleagues in China over the coming months.

"Yang Guang and Tian Tian have made a tremendous impression on our visitors over the last nine years, helping millions of people connect to nature and inspiring them to take an interest in wildlife conservation. I would love for them to be able to stay for a few more years with us and that is certainly my current aim."

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* Anyone who would like to help support the zoo can donate at edinburghzoo.org.uk/support

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