Pampered pandas get home improvements

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THE cost of bringing two giant pandas to Edinburgh Zoo has soared after a delegation of Chinese officials demanded "upgrades" to the state-of-the-art animal enclosure being built to house the VIP guests.

Tian Tian and Yuang Guang are due to arrive in Scotland by the end of the year, but a delegation from the Wolong Giant Panda Breeding Centre in China, who visited the zoo last month to inspect the facilities, has requested a few home improvements before the pandas move in.

The modifications, which are expected to add another 28,000 to the bill, include changes to the kitchen where the pandas' food will be prepared, alterations to the climbing frame and floors, and the knocking down of a wall to make three cages into two.

The enclosure, which includes pools and caves to mimic the animals' natural habitat, is currently under construction. A final inspection visit by the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA) is due to take place in October, but the zoo said yesterday that it does not expect the cost to rise further.

The association must grant the zoo approval before the Chinese government announces the pandas' date of travel.

Arrangements for the breeding pair of pandas born in 2003 to come to Scotland were announced by Premier Wen Jiabao when he visited the UK in June.

Hugh Roberts, the zoo's chief executive, said: "We have altered the climbing frame to make it lower, the floor, which was soft, is now hard and three cages have been knocked into two. We expect this to cost 28,000. The Chinese premier has told us that the pandas will be here by the end of the year and the CWCA will visit in October."

Mr Roberts described some of the alterations the zoo had agreed to make as "baby-proofing measures".

Earlier this week it emerged that the pandas would be protected by bulletproof glass. Contractors are installing ten glass plates, a half-tonne each, to provide a secure barrier between visitors and the endangered mammals.

A spokeswoman for the zoo said the panes had to be extremely strong because of their size and the fact that the pandas are large, heavy mammals.

In June, work on the enclosure ground to a near halt after it emerged that officials had failed to apply for planning permission.

The zoo had failed to submit plans to the council after deciding to expand the enclosure and surrounding walkways. The enclosure had not needed planning permission at the beginning of the building project as the intention was to refurbish an existing gorilla pen.

But later development plans for a walkway for visitors and a nursery for baby pandas meant planning permission was required.

The planning blunder followed a time of upheaval for the zoo after the sacking of one senior official and the suspension and then reinstatement of another two.

It is estimated that it will cost 6,000 a month to keep the pandas, and the zoo is still finalising its strategy for feeding the animals, which can eat as much as 66lb (30kg) of bamboo every day. One strategy being explored is for the zoo to grow its own bamboo.

The pandas will be the first to live in the UK for 17 years. The agreement between the UK and Chinese governments was signed at Lancaster House in London on 10 January.

The animals, currently living in the Bifengxia panda base in Ya'an, will live in the zoo for ten years, under the custodianship of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.