YEARS of diplomatic manoeuvring that have stretched from Scotland to China will finally come to fruition today when a Boeing air freighter touches down in Edinburgh carrying the precious cargo that will make Scottish zoological history.
Tian Tian, the female of a breeding pair, and Yang Guang, her potential partner, were expected to touch down at around 1pm before making a ten-minute high-profile VIP (very important panda) transfer in toughened glass containers to their new home on Corstorphine Hill.
The Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – in the absence of First Minister Alex Salmond, who is in China – and Scottish secretary Michael Moore were to lead a welcoming party at the airport, but the red-carpet treatment will be for the eight-year-old bears, who will become the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years and the first ever to settle in Scotland.
Their 5,000-mile journey on the world’s largest twin-engine cargo plane began in the early hours of this morning when the FedEx Panda Express aircraft took off from Chengdu Airport in China.
During the flight, Tian Tian and Yang Guang (Chinese for Sweetness and Sunshine) were held in their specially designed perspex boxes, where they were looked after by a vet and two animal handlers from the Edinburgh Zoo and the Bifengxia Panda Base, the lush reserve where they lived in south-west China.
The animals were not sedated onboard the aircraft and in-flight entertainment was provided by regular meals of bamboo, apples, carrots, panda cake and mineral water.
After touch down they were to be transferred to the zoo in an adapted truck, with police escort. There, journalists from around the world were to be among those desperate to glimpse the bears regarded as national treasures in China.
Yesterday in Edinburgh, excitement was mounting as last-minute preparations were made at the zoo, where its two high-profile residents will live in a newly built £250,000 panda house.
Edinburgh Zoo has been inundated with requests to pre-book a visit to the pandas ever since Scotland on Sunday revealed last week that they would be arriving today.
They will go on show for the first time in their new Scottish home on 16 December after they have acclimatised to their new surroundings.
Such is the demand that visitors will only be able to see the pandas in the flesh if they pre-book. But there is also the option of following them on the zoo’s webcam.
Yesterday, a zoo spokesman said: “We have enjoyed very healthy ticket sales. We had 1,500 in the first 24 hours after it was revealed that they were coming tomorrow.
“That figure settled down to around 800 a day in the days after that, but it is now rising again with the expectation caused by their arrival. We are very excited and we are putting the finishing touches here.”
Scotland’s tourism agency was hopeful that the pandas would boost Scotland’s economy. “The pandas will be a fantastic asset to Edinburgh Zoo, providing people with even more compelling reasons to visit this fantastic attraction and the city itself. The zoo is offering a unique opportunity to see these charming animals, helping to encourage increased visitor numbers to Edinburgh and Scotland,” a spokeswoman for VisitScotland said.
Today’s arrival is the culmination of a diplomatic process that began five years ago and has involved UK and Chinese diplomats, former and current prime ministers Gordon Brown and David Cameron, the Scottish First Minister and even the Princess Royal.
The princess was persuaded by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland to “drop” a remark to Chinese officials at the 2008 Beijing Olympics that Edinburgh would be a good home for the bears.
Her intervention was just one instance of the greasing of diplomatic wheels that began in May 2007 when the idea of bringing pandas to Scotland was first mooted.
The board of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland opened negotiations with the Chinese Consult General in Edinburgh, Tan Xiutian. Through the Foreign Office, they then secured the support of the UK ambassador in Beijing and made contact with the China Wildlife Conservation Association.
In May 2008 it was revealed that the zoo and officials in Sichuan had signed a letter of intent that would lead to the pandas coming to Edinburgh.
Since then, the UK and Scottish governments have thrown their weight behind the venture, while Salmond, who is currently visiting China, has hailed the pandas as a symbol of the burgeoning relationship between Scotland and China.
However, animal welfare groups were yesterday arguing against keeping wild animals in captivity.
Chris Draper, of the Born Free Foundation, the wildlife charity dedicated to stopping animal suffering, said the panda deal was a “short-sighted and retrograde step”.
He said: “Over time, I suspect we will see that this has less to do with conservation or education, and much more to do with resurrecting the fortunes of a fading visitor attraction.”
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