GIANT panda pair Tian Tian and Yang Guang have finally arrived at their new home in Scotland – but experts from Edinburgh Zoo admitted they may have to delay their grand public unveiling until both bears have recovered from the trip from China.
The pair – whose names mean Sweetie and Sunshine – touched down at Edinburgh Airport on schedule at just after 1pm yesterday following an 11-hour flight direct from Chengdu in Sichuan Province.
Their arrival marked the end of more than four years of negotiations between the Zoo and the Chinese authorities, which involved politicians from First Minister Alex Salmond to UK prime ministers – and the Princess Royal.
They are due to go on display from 16 December. Edinburgh Zoo’s website was inundated with hits after it revealed the date to the public last week. Although the cost of viewing the pandas is included in the usual zoo ticket price, visitors have to book a slot online in advance to be see the creatures.
However, the zoo’s director of conservation and research, Iain Valentine, yesterday said it was possible the pandas might not be unveiled to the public as early as planned – depending on how quickly they settled into their new environment.
“The team from the Chinese centre are with us for a while and we will be taking a lot from them and their experts,” he told The Scotsman. “We will see over the next few days how things are settling down and alter it [the date] accordingly.”
He admitted that Tian Tian, the female, had not endured the journey quite as well as her male counterpart. Keepers were delayed for more than an hour in offloading her from her delivery van, as they worked to relax the animal before introducing her to her new home.
“They key now is to give her peace and quiet and give her some food,” said Mr Valentine. “They always react differently and they have had a huge journey, so it has all been quite different for them – they’ll need a few days to settle down.
“Male animals tend to be more robust. He was quite relaxed on the plane; he took a lot of food. He generally has a very relaxed attitude and is likely to become a very popular animal – he will be easier for us to do things with.
“The female is beautiful, but a little more highly strung.”
Half-way through the journey, the keepers decided to open the panels on the cages, so that the pandas, which were kept separately, could see each other.
“It was another way of keeping the female calm,” added Mr Valentine.
Royal Zoological Society for Scotland chief executive Hugh Robertson said he was optimistic the public would be able to view the pandas from 16 December, but stressed that their health was the key. “The chances are very high,” he said. “We set the date giving enough time for them to settle in. However, if for any reason they are not ready, then animal welfare always comes first.”
Mr Robertson described the arrival of the pandas from China as a “Christmas present for Scotland”.
He said: “It is truly a sign of friendship and marks a relationship between the two countries, as well as work on research and conservation.”
At Edinburgh Airport to meet the pandas yesterday were Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and Edinburgh’s Lord Provost George Grubb, as well as dignitaries from the Chinese government, including Qin Gang, chargé d’affaires for the embassy in London.
Ms Sturgeon hailed the pandas’ arrival as a landmark in Scotland’s burgeoning relationship with China.
“This is a historic occasion for Scotland and I am delighted to welcome these giant pandas to their new home,” Ms Sturgeon said. “Securing the loan of this breeding pair is a considerable honour and a strong and compelling symbol of the friendship between Scotland and China.”
Mr Salmond arrived in China yesterday on his third visit to the country since becoming First Minister, to talk to the government about investment and business links between the two countries.
He said he would thank the Chinese vice-premier, Li Keqiang, in a meeting in Beijing today, for his involvement in the panda project.
Mr Li signed the formal agreement with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg last January to bring the pandas to Scotland.
Mr Salmond said: “As panda-mania hits Scotland, and we extend a warm Scottish welcome to Tian Tian and Yang Guang, I am delighted to have the opportunity to personally thank the Chinese government and extend our thanks to vice-premier Li Keqiang, who visited Edinburgh himself earlier this year.”
Mr Clegg said: “I’m delighted by the arrival of pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang at Edinburgh Zoo today, which is a reflection of the strength of our relationship with China. It shows that we can co-operate closely not only on commerce, but on a broad range of environmental and cultural issues as well.”
Mr Qin added that the deal, which was officially signed between China and the UK government – rather than the Scottish Government – was part of a “growing relationship” between China and Scotland.
“This event has been reported widely in both China and Scotland and will help immensely with people’s awareness of the relationship between the two countries,” he said. “The China-Scotland relationship has developed very quickly.”
The eight-year-old pair, who are due to remain in Scotland for the next decade, will be the first giant pandas to live in the UK for more than 17 years, since the pair living at London Zoo were returned to China.
They will eat up to £70,000 of bamboo every year, the vast majority of which will be transported from a farm in the Netherlands.
Members of the public will be able to watch the pandas’ activities in their £285,000 enclosure through a special “panda-cam” available on Edinburgh Zoo’s website.