Scotland set to welcome two pandas

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A DEAL was signed today which will finally bring a pair of giant pandas from China to Edinburgh Zoo, the Evening News can reveal.

&#149 Animal lovers may be invited to name the two pandas being loaned to Britain by China

After several years of high-level international discussions between the UK and China the Capital has been chosen to embark on a breeding programme which will see two pandas settled and bred at the zoo.

The agreement was announced in London today during the four-day state visit by China's vice premier Li Keqiang and six other ministers, who arrived in Edinburgh yesterday.

&#149 Are you excited at the prospects of pandas coming to Edinburgh Zoo? Vote here

A new enclosure will have to be built to accommodate the pandas, who could arrive as soon as next year.

Culture and External Affairs Minister Fiona Hyslop said: "Edinburgh Zoo has a world-leading reputation for animal conservation and I am delighted that Scotland has been chosen to take part in China's breeding programme for giant pandas. The agreement gives Scotland an important role in securing the future of this endangered species. As well as supporting China's work to protect these animals, the arrival of the pandas is expected to bring significant economic benefits for Scotland in terms of tourism, attracting hundreds of thousands of additional visitors to the zoo.

"Edinburgh Zoo has demonstrated that it has world-class expertise to breed and care for these rare animals and this announcement reflects our continuing work to strengthen the cultural, educational and economic links between Scotland and China."

The arrival of the pandas will provide a much-needed boost for Edinburgh Zoo, which has been hit hard by falling visitor numbers, and is understood to have made plans to axe a quarter of its 200 full-time staff. Zoo bosses had hoped to see visitors numbers increase to 632,000 in 2010, but it is thought the year's final total was around 570,000. However, insiders say the introduction of the pandas could see the number of visitors swell to around one million, overtaking Edinburgh Castle as Scotland's most- visited attraction.

Edinburgh Zoo will become one of only a handful zoos in the western hemisphere, and the only institution in the UK, to care for giant pandas. It will join the four zoos in North America that currently house them, with others in Mexico City, Berlin, Vienna and Madrid.

The introduction of pandas to Adelaide Zoo saw visitor numbers soar by 70 per cent, while in Taipei zoo bosses recorded increases of half a million visitors, from 3.2m to 3.7m in 2009.

In late 2010 David Windmill, the outgoing chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which owns the zoo, said the recent death of a giant panda in captivity in Japan had led the Chinese to re-negotiate clauses in the contract agreed with Edinburgh. Xing Xing, also known as Kou Kou, was on loan from China to Oji Zoo in Kobe, Japan, when he reportedly died on the operating table during a procedure to extract semen for an attempt at artificial insemination. Edinburgh Zoo's experts already have a renowned record for breeding but they had to work towards meeting the strict criteria that the Chinese authorities set down for candidates.

To be considered by the Chinese Government, the zoo had to demonstrate that it had the commitment and expertise to care for the species. China also charges foreign nations 500,000 a year to lease pandas, but needs to be satisfied that adequate facilities are in place to care for the animals before giving approval.

The pandas set to arrive in the city have not been named, and it has been suggested that the public may be involved in the naming process.

In November it emerged that Prime Minister David Cameron had helped move the agreement to bring the pandas to Edinburgh a step closer by lobbying for a deal during his trip to China. His visit followed long-running negotiations between the zoo bosses, political leaders in Scotland and high-level delegates in China.

Documents obtained by the Evening News in November revealed that First Minister Alex Salmond wrote to China's foreign minister in September, saying that he was hopeful that any "outstanding issues" preventing the panda deal could be resolved.

In a heavily censored letter to Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, Mr Salmond wrote: "I am pleased to say that implementation of some of the actions agreed during my visit are moving forward quickly and am grateful for your encouragement and support. For example, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland have held a further meeting with the CWCA (China Wildlife Conservation Association) to resolve the outstanding issues that will lead to the loan of two pandas to Edinburgh Zoo."

In the past the scheme has drawn criticism from animal rights campaigners and politicians who say efforts to save pandas from extinction should focus on preserving their habitat as those in captivity are very unlikely to ever be released into the wild.

Culls, cuts and controversy at attraction in need of a boost

EDINBURGH Zoo bosses hope that the arrival of the giant pandas will reverse the fortunes of the historic institution after several major setbacks during 2010.

In October, the Evening News revealed that the zoo was set to lay off one quarter of its 200 staff in light of a downturn that saw similar visitor attractions record a 12.5 per cent fall in paying customers last year.

Popular attractions have been closed, perks for members have been withdrawn and the zoo was criticised after it emerged two rare Red River Hog piglets, Sammi and Becca, had been culled because they were "surplus"?.

Zoo owner the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland is trying to see through a crucial 72 million development which it says requires a land swap deal with the city council to expand the site. Early last year, the council gave permission for up to 80 homes to be built on land at the west of the institution, raising funds for the zoo's 20-year master plan.

The arrival of pandas at other zoos has dramatically boosted visitor numbers.

When a pair of Chinese pandas were given to Taipei zoo by China in 2008, ticket sales soared. Meanwhile, when Funi and Wang Wang arrived at Adelaide Zoo in Australia in early 2010, visitor numbers rocketed by 70 per cent.

Chinese economy threat to the rarest of all bears

THE giant panda, which is indigenous to south-western China, is the rarest member of the bear family and among the world's most threatened animals, according to the World Wildlife Federation.

The body says the rapid economic growth of the Chinese economy has brought new perils to the species and left the future of the panda increasingly uncertain. Its forest habitat is increasingly fragmented by roads and railroads.

Habitat loss continues to occur outside of protected areas, and poaching remains an ever-present threat. Great strides have been made towards preserving the species. By 2005, the Chinese government had established more than 50 panda reserves, protecting more than 2.5 million acres and over 60 per cent of the population.

The WWF said a four-year survey completed in 2004 counted 1600 pandas in the wild. The last survey, in 1985, found around 1100.

While breeding programmes have been successful in recent years, it is notoriously diffcult to make a pair of pandas mate.

In black and white

Today: Deal struck to make Edinburgh home to the UK's first pandas.

16/11/10: David Cameron puts deal on agenda for state trip to China.

07/6/10: Edinburgh Zoo confirms pandas will not arrive in 2010.

11/5/09: Edinburgh Zoo insists panda plan is still "on track" despite RBS financial problems.

26/3/09: Jim Murphy meets Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing.

13/8/08: Advocates for Animals accuses Gordon Brown and China's leaders of using pandas as "political pawns".

11/8/08: Alex Salmond, the Royal Family and RBS enlisted to lobby China for pandas loan.

10/5/08: Zoo and Chinese sign letter of intent to bring "biggest crowd-pullers on earth", to Edinburgh.