IT WAS mid-2007 when board members of the Royal Zoological Society for Scotland found themselves out of ideas at a meeting in the library of Edinburgh Zoo’s Mansion House.
The gathering was set against a backdrop of continued rancour over plans to sell off land on the edge of the zoo’s Corstorphine site to fund future developments.
The board was aiming to create a long-term strategy for the attraction’s survival but, with little investment, they did not know where to turn.
After a lengthy discussion, the group decided the key to the zoo’s long-term future was to raise its profile – on both the national and international stage.
Then one board member came up with the idea of “rock star animals”.
Sean Rowles, now a banker living in the United States, said: “I remember sitting there and making a comment that we needed to find some rock star animals.
“I said, ‘We should get some giant pandas’. I could see everyone looking at me. They all pretty much said ‘you’re crazy’.”
But two of the key members – Iain Valentine, former head of animals and now director of conservation and research, and chief executive David Windmill – were less sceptical. The three of them looked at each other and made a silent pledge that they would turn Mr Rowles’s dream into a reality.
The meeting was the beginning of a long, arduous process involving both UK and Chinese diplomats, First Minister Alex Salmond, prime ministers Gordon Brown and David Cameron – and some unexpected assistance in the form of the Princess Royal.
“Pretty much any other animal in the world, you can get your hands on pretty easily – but not pandas,” Mr Rowles said.
“Giant pandas are unique – not just in themselves, but in what they represent. They have always been a diplomatic gift.”
The idea of “panda diplomacy” dates back more than 1,000 years, as far as the Tang dynasty, when Empress Wu Zetian sent a pair of pandas to the Japanese emperor.
But it was in the middle of the last century when the concept really took off. By then a Communist country which had strained relations with the capitalist West, China donated a total of 23 pandas to nine countries between 1958 and 1982.
But it was up to Mr Rowles and his fellow board members to forge their own method of panda diplomacy.
Despite his family having had ties with China – in 1958, Mr Rowles’s Australian grandfather was one of the first westerners to meet Chairman Mao on a visit to the country to advise on manufacturing processes – the group had to start from scratch.
“We had never done anything like this before – no-one writes a guidebook on how to get a panda from the Chinese,” Mr Rowles said. “We took off in a lot of different directions, some were dead ends and some were very effective.
“Now, the politicians are right at the forefront of it all, talking about how they have been instrumental in getting the pandas to Scotland, but in the beginning it wasn’t like that. We struggled for a long time to get any help from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”
The FCO admits it had little to do with the process until about a year ago – when Chinese vice-premier Li Keqiang, finally signed the agreement for the pandas to come to the zoo.
“From my perspective, this tells a good story about the broadening of our relations with China,” an FCO spokesman said.
One of the new coalition government’s aims following the election last year was to increase relationships with the emerging powers, including China.
“We see this as a very serious gift and a good indication of a strengthening of our relationship with China,” the spokesman added. “We are very keen to show we understand what this gift means.”
But going it alone in 2008, the board’s first port of call was the Chinese consul-general in Edinburgh, Madame Tan Xiutian.
Further contacts saw them finally secure a meeting with the FCO in London, leading to the support of the UK ambassador in Beijing.
But garnering political support was not enough. This was where animal expert Mr Valentine took over, pioneering some “very good” early conversations about how to broach the subject with China’s animal organisations.
The board’s initial contact was through the government-run China Wildlife Conservation Association – now a key member of the partnership bringing the creatures to Edinburgh Zoo. But protocol required that they did not rush straight to the point.
“The initial discussions couldn’t be around giant pandas, but they had to be around conservation,” Mr Rowles said. “We talked to them about building a research partnership.”
For information on working in a very different culture, they turned to Scottish business people who might have had dealings with China.
One crucial contact was Peter Budd, an Edinburgh-based director of engineering firm Arup, who had secured contracts for the Beijing Olympic Games, and these four men became the “panda pioneers” – taking the project forward together.
Mr Budd’s experience had given him knowledge of the relationship-driven Chinese culture.
“Saying to a British politician that every time they spoke to anyone in China they needed to mention the pandas was tricky,” he said. “They asked ‘Why should I talk about pandas when I’m there for something else?’ And the answer was ‘Because you have to – or it won’t happen’.”
He knew the team needed to get everything in place. Starting the ball rolling to secure a pair of giant pandas and then finding there was not sufficient funds to build an enclosure, or no way of importing bamboo to feed the animals, would be a major loss of “face” – something the Chinese take very seriously. “We had to work on building up the confidence of the Chinese authorities that this was going to be a success,” said Mr Budd, who was this week in Ya’an – the pandas’ hometown – for the goodbye ceremony for Tian Tian and Yang Guang.
“Sometimes things just slow down in China for reasons you don’t understand. It can be a bit mysterious.”
At this point, the group had hit an impasse. They desperately needed contact with senior leadership of the Chinese government.
Mr Budd managed to secure them a meeting with the Chinese ambassador in London to plant the seed of an idea. But it was not enough.
Through a contact, they were introduced to the Duke of York, who put them in touch with the Princess Royal. As she was going to the Olympics in Beijing, the panda team asked if the royal animal lover would drop a comment in her meetings there that the Royal Family was “very interested” in the discussions that were happening about pandas with the ambassador in London.
This royal “comment” did the trick. It alerted the Chinese authorities to the fact something was happening – and set the wheels in motion.
A discussion between then prime minister Gordon Brown and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao about three years ago gave the group optimism that the panda dream could come to fruition.
In 2010, First Minister Alex Salmond wrote to Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi on the subject of loaning the pandas, while Prime Minister David Cameron is understood to have discussed the plan on a visit to China earlier that year.
Mr Salmond has made three visits to China in the past two years, while it is understood that the First Secretary for Scottish Affairs at the UK embassy in Beijing provided protocol and other advice to Edinburgh Zoo representatives during their many visits to China.
The Scottish Government regards the choice of Edinburgh as “significant” in terms of reflecting the ongoing relationship that has been developed between Scotland and China in recent years.
“The arrival of Tian Tian and Yang Guang is a fantastic boost for Edinburgh Zoo and will be a major draw for visitors in the months and years to come,” a spokesman for the First Minister said.
“It also reflects the growing relationship between Scotland and China, in terms of cultural, educational and economic ties.”
The bid became formal last December, when the negotiations reached the final stages.
“A lot of things happened along the way, but we had a good sense early on that things were going to go the way we wanted,” Mr Rowles said. The original panda pioneers are to hold a private reunion dinner in the panda enclosure next week – accompanied, of course, by their new friends Tian Tian and Yang Guang, who are due to arrive in Scotland tomorrow afternoon.