TICKETS to see the giant pandas at Edinburgh Zoo are being snapped up in their thousands by visitors desperate to catch a glimpse of Tian Tian as she continues to show signs of pregnancy.
Families are pre-booking the free slots to view the enclosure weeks in advance as keepers warn that if she is expecting, a cub could arrive at any time.
Zoo staff will not know for sure if the nine-year-old is having a baby until she goes into labour, so must plan for a birth regardless. It could be any time between now and about 10 September, they estimate.
Tickets for the panda enclosure are sold out until this Friday and only six of the 31 tours that day remain open, meaning that all but 230 of the 2,100 daily places have gone, according to the booking website.
For Saturday, there were only six of the 31 tours – each of which can accommodate 50 people – still open last night, with about 210 of the 2,100 tickets left. Hundreds of tickets for the first week in September have also been taken, and seven of the 31 tours for the following weekend are booked out.
Edinburgh Zoo is advising that visitors book in advance, although a handful of tickets are released each morning, distributed on a first-come-first-served basis. Between about 4,000 and 5,000 people typically visit the zoo on a busy day in August.
Tony Bradford, the zoo’s visitor experience coordinator, said that although Tian Tian is making only sporadic appearances due to being sleepy, audiences are thrilled at the possibility of a cub arriving.
“People are very excited when they are coming in and although she’s not spending a great amount of time outside, she is a little bit more active lately”, he told The Scotsman at the panda enclosure.
“A lot of the groups coming in are not really seeing much of her, but they’re very accepting because they know what’s going on and the excitement is getting them by. Normally, when they weren’t going through this expectant period, they would be very disappointed but now they very much feel it’s still reasonably exciting because they’re part of what’s going on.”
Mr Bradford said that if Tian Tian does have a cub, the public would not be able to see it until 1 January 2014.
He added: “The big thing for us is making sure people know that if she does have a cub, it’s not going to go on show for a while.
“It would be a shame if people came to see it the following week because it’s a bit too small and dainty at that stage, but they will see it when it’s grown up a bit.”
Tian Tian was artificially inseminated in April with semen from Edinburgh partner Yang Guang and another bear, Bao Bao, who died last year in Berlin Zoo aged 34.
Last year, more than 800,000 people flocked to the Corstorphine attraction, compared with 525,000 over the whole of 2011.
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which owns the zoo, said it had increased its membership by 25 per cent, to just over 25,000.
A report by Scottish Enterprise estimates that the panda pair will generate almost £28 million in visitor spending for the Edinburgh economy alone during their ten-year stay, with an extra £19m spent in the wider Scottish economy.
Meanwhile a panda cub born at a Washington DC zoo is in “excellent” health, zoo keepers said after its first check-up.
The panda, born on Friday at the Smithsonian National Zoo, weighs 136g, has a steady heartbeat, functioning lungs and digests food.
Its baby brother or sister was stillborn. Mother Mei Xiang has one other surviving cub, born in 2005.