ALMOST two weeks after arriving at their new home in Scotland, giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang are finally ready to face their public.
This morning at 9:15, the doors to the panda experience at Edinburgh Zoo will open to the world, and the two bears will begin a decade-long routine of life as objects of fascination.
Since the first tentative suggestion around a boardroom table at the zoo’s Mansion House in 2007, the magnetism of pandas – and the money they bring – has offered Edinburgh Zoo hope of a shot of adrenaline to quicken the pulses of jaded tourists.
The sacking of an executive in April nearly derailed the panda deal altogether, and dwindling visitor numbers have also threatened the zoo’s future.
In this environment, Tian Tian, whose name means “Sweetie”, and Yang Guang, meaning “Sunshine”, have a lot riding on them.
Whether or not the pandas know it, the zoo is ready. Soft toy pandas in five different sizes line the walls of the zoo’s gift shop, and everything from woolly hats to panda iPod speakers are crammed on to shelves in the hope of shifting stock at the height of the festive season.
The public area of the enclosures is clean and barely touched, and a “panda patrol” of 14 trained helpers is on standby to guide visitors through their experience.
Inside the soothing green walls of their enclosures, the pandas may not even be aware of the hundreds of tourists that will traipse through the walkway of wooden beams that make up the panda visiting area.
Today alone, 600 people have pre-booked. The zoo has decided to keep back a third of the tickets for customers who turn up on the day.
A spokeswoman for the zoo said the pandas were worth the financial risk.
She said: “Approximately 600 visitors are pre-booked to see the pandas on the first day, a 200 per cent increase on the usual gate numbers for a mid-December Friday.
“Pre-booked numbers for the first weekend are up by approximately 80 per cent on usual expectations for a pre-Christmas winter weekend.”
What is less clear, is what people will actually see for their money. Pandas are solitary animals who are most active at dusk and during the night. Given that the visiting hours extend in half-hour blocks from 9:15am to 3:45pm, Tian Tian and Yang Guang may well be asleep as up to 200 people at a time breathe on to the bullet-proof glass that separates the “rock star” bears from their fans.
However,the zoo spokeswoman was reluctant to recommend any one slot to visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of Yang Guang raising a paw or chewing on bamboo as he had done when he was offloaded from the giant perspex box that carried him from China.
“They are animals and will suit their own schedule. It’s impossible to predict when is going to be the best slot,” she said.
Keepers are confident the pandas will be safe in the event of any repeat of stormy winter weather.
“The recent severe weather conditions had no effect on the welfare of the giant pandas, who are both settling in extremely well. Tian Tian and Yang Guang were kept indoors for the day, where they were safe and comfortable during the winter storms,” she added.
Zoo chief executive Hugh Roberts said: “This is the moment we have been waiting for since we first discussed bringing the giant pandas to Edinburgh almost five years ago.
“We see the pandas as catalysts for research, education and conservation – aimed at improving the future for pandas.”