IT WILL be the moment that Edinburgh – and the rest of Scotland – has been eagerly awaiting for more than three years.
On Sunday, a pair of giant pandas will be lifted on to the tarmac at Edinburgh Airport after being flown from China by special delivery.
The breeding pair, Tian Tian – meaning “sweetie” – and Yang Guang – “sunshine” – will travel with delivery company FedEx, which will fly them from Chengdu Airport in China in special containers and oversee their delivery to their new enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo.
The zoo formally announced the pandas’ arrival yesterday after The Scotsman’s sister paper Scotland on Sunday revealed they would land in the UK next weekend.
“We have been looking forward to this moment for five years now, since we first embarked on this epic journey to bring the giant pandas to Scotland,” said Hugh Roberts, chief executive of Edinburgh Zoo.
“The arrival of Tian Tian and Yang Guang is an historic occasion for the zoo, for Scotland, and for the UK as a whole. Our dedicated team at the zoo has worked tirelessly to create a world-class enclosure to house our newest additions, which will offer visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view these extraordinary animals.”
The pandas will be on loan to the zoo for about ten years – during which time it is hoped that the animals, which are notoriously reticent breeders, will produce cubs. These would be the first baby pandas to be born in Scotland. Both pandas have successfully parented before, with Tian Tian giving birth to twins two years ago.
When the pandas arrive on the runway in Scotland, they will be greeted by officials from Edinburgh Zoo, the Scottish Government and officials from the panda project partnership, which includes the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA).
It is believed a dram of whisky will be drunk at the airport, along with a range of cultural ceremonies to welcome the pandas.
First Minister Alex Salmondwill be on a trade mission in China at the time of the pandas’ arrival.
He said: “I will be in China myself on the day they arrive, signing a cultural exchange agreement with the Chinese, and I am sure all Scotland will be delighted to welcome Tian Tian and Yang Guang with the warmest of Scottish receptions awaiting them.
“Having the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo is a considerable honour and will be a huge draw for visitors. It will give a welcome boost to the economy and to tourism.”
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore added: “Edinburgh Zoo can look forward to a very exciting Christmas this year and lots more visitors in the years to come.”
The pandas will have a two-week “settling-in” period before going on display at the zoo, which is owned by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS).
The pair, who were born in 2003, will be the first pandas to live in the UK for 17 years, since Britain’s last giant panda, Ming-Ming, was sent back to China in 1994 after a failed breeding experiment with her prospective mate, Bao Bao.
Keeper Alison McLean, who will have responsibility for the pandas during their stay in Edinburgh, said her team had received a lot of support from the Chinese authorities. The pandas are currently at the Ya’an reserve in Chengdu, China.
She said: “The Chinese have been really good, really welcoming and have shared a huge amount of information with us. We’re in contact by e-mail on a regular basis and they’re there to back us up.”
The specially designed enclosure has been subjected to rigorous testing from panda experts from China.
The pandas are expected to eat up to 18,000 kilos of bamboo every year, which will be shipped in from a farm in The Netherlands.
“They wanted to make sure we had everything just right,” said Ms McLean. “They’ve worked with pandas for a huge amount of years, we haven’t. They weren’t here throughout the whole build process, and they just wanted to tweak one or two things.”
Dr Chunlin Zang, secretary-general of the CWCA, added: “From the very start, the CWCA has been working in partnership with the RZSS. With this historic arrival of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, our collaboration has entered a new stage.
“Together, we are looking forward to playing an important role in future giant panda research and conservation.”
The special cargo is not the first time that FedEx – better known for delivering parcels worldwide – has transported exotic creatures.
It has previously been responsible for the safe delivery of polar bears, elephants, penguins, mountain lions, gorillas, eagles and even a 13ft tiger shark used in filming the movie Jaws.
Animal care experts have been granted special flight privileges to accompany the pandas on board the aircraft.
“FedEx is uniquely qualified to make this special delivery, given our long history connecting China to the UK and our extensive global experience in shipping precious cargo, from packages to pandas,” said Gerald P Leary, its European president.
Onboard the Boeing 777F aircraft – which is solely dedicated to the pandas’ journey and is the newest plane in FedEx’s fleet – Tian Tian and Yang Guang will travel in two custom-built transport containers made of perspex.
The pair will then be shipped on to the zoo by FedEx Express, in a special vehicle escorted by Lothian and Borders Police.
Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese Ambassador, said the arrival of the pandas marked the beginning of a long partnership between Britain and China.
Their stay is part of a ten-year joint research programme to find out how human-bred pandas can survive in the wild.
“At its core, the project represents the growing scientific ties between China and Britain,” said Mr Liu.
“But this is about much more than conservation. It is also about science, culture, education and above all friendship and partnership. Through these themes we expect pandas to bring China and Britain even closer together.
“Knowing pandas also means understanding more about their home country of China,” he added. “This opens the way for people across Britain to explore the Chinese traditions, people, its society and economy.”