WHEN Yang Guang raised a paw as he was lifted out of the specially chartered Panda Express plane, he appeared to be waving to those who had congregated at Edinburgh Airport to welcome him and his female companion Tian Tian to their new home.
Transported in 4ft-high clear plastic boxes from their home in the south of China on a direct FedEx flight to Edinburgh, the pair of giant pandas were met at the airport by about two dozen dignitaries.
A loud speaker excitedly announced there were 15 minutes until the Panda Express was due, then ten minutes and five minutes, before at last the Boeing 777 came into view in the skies above Edinburgh.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore and Edinburgh’s Lord Provost George Grubb were among the welcoming party, alongside dignitaries from the Chinese government – including Qin Gang, charge d’affaires for the Chinese embassy in London and Jia Jiansheng, vice director of the Chinese State Forestry Administration. They toasted the new arrivals with a dram of whisky and pipers played Scotland the Brave as the plane landed on schedule at 1:06pm.
All were festooned with the official black and white panda tartan – a variation on the Gillespie Tartan in a link to Thomas Gillespie, the Edinburgh lawyer who founded the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland more than 100 years ago.
A specially liveried plane with pictures of giant pandas on its sides, the Panda Express came to rest at the airport in the same secluded spot where the Pope arrived last year.
The freezing Scottish weather faced by the pandas as they emerged from the plane was unlikely to be a major shock to the animals, which are used to similar conditions in their home region. Temperatures in Chengdu were hovering around 5C to 8C this week, although clouds, fog and rain often make it feel much colder. However, Edinburgh has now taken the record from Moscow as the place with the most northerly latitude to be home to giant pandas.
It was the second panda flight for pilots Captain Bob Gasko and Captain Paul Cassel – decked in kilts in another specially created tartan, this time one invented by FedEx to mark the event – who also transported cubs Tai Shan and Mei Lan when they left the US for China last year.
“The pandas were great,” said Capt Gasko. “The bigger one was very gentle and they were able to feed him. They seemed quite happy.”
Capt Cassel added: “Between the panda cake and the apples, they seemed content. We could scratch them on the head and they were quite docile.”
Also on the runway to meet the pandas was competition winner Maisie Dalton, six.
“All Maisie has been thinking about is pandas,” said her mother, Morag Dalton. “She has been talking about them in her sleep.”
A door in the side of the plane opened and the pandas were given their first glimpse of their new home.
Both moved around in their crates, as first Tian Tian and then Yang Guang were lowered from the plane on a Servisair crane and quickly moved into separate FedEx vans to be driven the short distance to Edinburgh Zoo, where hundreds of well-wishers waving saltires and Chinese flags were waiting to greet them.
“We watched them being loaded off the plane and then came straight out to see them here at the zoo,” said postman Oliver Morgan.
Exhibition and display manager Gail Bruce said: “I think it is a great thing for Scotland and for Edinburgh.”
Michael Guan, who is originally from Fu Sian in China but has lived in Scotland for more than 20 years, said he had never seen a panda in his native country.
“Today is really important for us – it is important for China and the UK,” he said. “The gift of a panda is a big step in diplomacy between the two countries.”
The pandas, which were accompanied on the plane by the zoo’s director of conservation and research, Iain Valentine, and Professor Tang Chunxiang, chief vet and assistant director at the China Research and Conservation Centre, were last night settling into their new home, assisted by head keeper Alison McLean and the pandas’ keeper from China, who was due to arrive in Scotland soon after the pandas to help them adapt.
Ms McLean, who has spent time in China getting to know the pandas before their journey, said Tian Tian was fussy with her food. “We have had to cut fresh bamboo for her daily,” she said. “Tian Tian is quiet and appears quite reserved. However, this ladylike image hides a mischievous side and she will have a swipe at you if you are not careful.”
She added: “Yang Guang appears to explore more than Tian Tian and is very patient. In essence, he is a gentle giant.”