Farewell Yang Guang and Tian Tian as Edinburgh Zoo's pandas leave for China
With military precision, the operation began early on Monday morning.
Yang Guang, then Tian Tian were transported from their enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo in specially made travelling crates, by forklift truck and loaded onto the back of an articulated lorry along with bundles of bamboo at 8.30am.
The delicate task to prepare the UK’s only Giant pandas for their journey home to China was a complex exercise in logistics, tinged with sadness for the keepers who had come to know the bears so well during their 12-year stay in Scotland.
The staff were allowed a final goodbye before the zoo's star attractions made the 15 minute journey to Edinburgh Airport to board a midday China Southern flight to Chengdu in southwest China, 5100 miles away.
The animals' departure marks the end of an era at the zoo. Now 20 years old, their lives -- including the annual attempts to produce an historic panda cub in Scotland -- captured the imagination of millions of people.David Field, chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), the wildlife conservation charity that runs Edinburgh Zoo, admitted he would have loved to keep the pair, but said it was "very important culturally for the Chinese that pandas spend their twilight years back at home".He said the RZSS would "keep informed about how our wonderful pandas are getting on", while the zoo will eventually bring in another "exciting" species.Mr Field added: "With more than a million species at risk of extinction and our natural world in crisis, Yang Guang and Tian Tian have had an incredible impact by inspiring millions of people to care about nature."Although the pandas will be missed, in their wake we have the opportunity to help protect a new species through our expertise in conservation science and research, public engagement here in Scotland and in the wild by working with global partners."Yang Guang and Tian Tian arrived in Edinburgh as part of an initial ten-year arrangement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), which saw the RZSS pay the Chinese an annual "donation" of one million dollars -- around £750,000. The RZSS later negotiated a two year extension to the end of this year.Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the pair will return to China without having any offspring. Tian Tian, the female, produced twins prior to coming to Scotland, but attempts at natural breeding and artificial insemination since 2013 have failed. Yang Guang was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2018, and was later castrated.Breeding attempts were cancelled in 2020 due to the covid pandemic and, while there were high hopes of success in 2021 by artificial insemination, no further attempts have been made.Mr Field said recently that the pair appeared to be a perfect match when they arrived in 2011, but the iconic animals just didn't click, adding that "if it was Tinder, perhaps Tian Tian wouldn’t have swiped right if she had the choice."Dr Kirsten Wilson, reproductive scientist at the University of Edinburgh, who monitored Tian Tian, said: "What we know now about pandas is that mate choice is really important... When females have a line up of panda males in front of them, when they can choose, they are proven to be more likely to be successful at having babies."In this situation we had one female and one male, there was no choice and if they naturally just don't get on then they just don't get on."Yang Guang and Tian Tian were last on show to the public on Thursday and have spent recent days in training for their flight. They have eaten and slept in their travelling crates so that they feel they are flying "in their beds".Precise details of their departure were kept a closely guarded secret for security reasons, until the last minute.The animal VIPs were accompanied on their flight by familiar faces including RZSS senior animal keeper Michael Livingstone and veterinary surgeon Dr Stephanie Mota, who were able to check on them and provide water, bamboo and other snacks during the flight.Mr Livingstone, who will spend several days in China with the animals to help them settle into their new home, said: "It's an emotional day for us keepers that have been fortunate enough to care for Yang Guang and Tian Tian over the years."It has been the highlight of my career to work with this amazing species and I will definitely miss them."I’m lucky enough to be travelling on the plane with them to China to help them settle in and I think it will be nice for them to hear a familiar voice as they get used to their new home."He added: "We will have access to the pandas the whole flight so we will continuously check them and feed them bamboo so they can eat as much as they want, and treats like carrots, apples and honey."We'll stay with them for a few days (in China) to see how they settle in and be familiar faces for them. It's normal for animals in zoos to move around but we've worked so closely with these two individuals for so long that I think it will be quite emotional. I feel very lucky and privileged to be able to take them back to China."There are currently no plans to bring new pandas to Edinburgh, but Mr Field refused to rule it out in the future and insisted he would welcome talks.
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