PLANS for a pair of giant pandas to come to Edinburgh Zoo have been backed by Gordon Brown.
In a letter to David Windmill, chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society for Scotland (RZSS), the Prime Minister said he would be "personally delighted" to see the project succeed.
His support is seen as essential because the negotiations with the Chinese over the iconic animals will reach to the highest political levels.
Mr Brown wrote: "We welcome the progress which the Royal Zoological Society has made in its discussions with the Chinese authorities and wish you continued success in bringing these discussions to a satisfactory conclusion.
"The loan of pandas to Edinburgh Zoo would be a tremendous success for the society and for co-operation and better understanding between Britain and China. I would be personally delighted to see it happen."
He also said the government, via the British Embassy in Beijing, "will be very happy to take action with the Chinese authorities when you judge the time is right to encourage a positive outcome to this exciting project".
Mr Windmill described the letter as "a major step forward", which would allow negotiations about obtaining the pandas to move to the next level.
Earlier this year, on a visit to China, zoo officials obtained a letter of intent from the Wolong Panda Research and Conservation Centre in Sichuan province that gave initial approval to the loan of a breeding pair of the animals to Edinburgh .
Mr Windmill said: "The agreement with Wolong was at a technical, practical level. What we've been trying to do since then is to establish the political framework for the loan of the giant pandas. This letter establishes that framework.
"The loan of giant pandas has very strong political implications for China. It is viewed as a sign of co-operation between the Chinese and UK governments.
"The Chinese have been saying, 'We're happy to talk about this in a political sense – we would like to know that your government is as happy to talk about this as we are'. For the Chinese, and for us, this is a recognition of UK government support."
Pandas in zoos around the world all remain the property of the Chinese government, which regards them as extensions of its programme for breeding the animals in captivity.
The RZSS will now enter into detailed negotiations with the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association, the body responsible for the pandas. The zoo will be expected to offer a package of financial aid and scientific expertise to support conservation programmes.
Mr Windmill intends inviting the association's officials to Edinburgh for detailed talks. He said: "Once we work out the detail of the collaboration, there will need to be a formal agreement between Gordon Brown and his counterpart in China. This letter tells us that, in principle, if these discussions go well, Gordon Brown is prepared to do that."
It is unlikely the pandas will be in their new home in time for the zoo's centenary next spring, as initially hoped. Mr Windmill says 2010 is a more likely arrival date, giving the zoo time to build a specialist enclosure for the pandas, which must be approved by the Chinese.
If successful, Edinburgh will become one of a handful of zoos outside South-east Asia to have giant pandas, and the first in the UK since London Zoo returned its panda to China 14 years ago.
The giant panda is among the most endangered species in the world, with only about 1,800 left in the wild and some 200 in captivity.
Chinese get conservation expertise in returnstrong>
GIANT pandas are normally loaned to zoos in other countries in return for a package of financial help and scientific expertise that supports conservation in China.
Edinburgh Zoo will be drawing on expertise from Scottish scientists to propose research in relevant areas – for example, panda diseases or habitat destruction.
David Windmill, of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), said: "The loan of the giant pandas is set against the context of the RZSS carrying out conservation work in China, both for giant pandas and for Chinese habitats.
"The point of this is about benefiting the giant pandas in the wild.
"The Prime Minister's letter allows us to discuss in a lot more detail with the Chinese the exact arrangements of the relationship in conservation terms – what research we carry out, who, how long, when, where, what financial commitments we make."
Meanwhile, the zoo is expected to launch a campaign to raise money to pay for the project and for improvements to visitor facilities to cope with the expected big crowds.