Pandas to arrive early if zoo has bear necessities

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EDINBURGH Zoo could be ready to welcome its pandas as early as the summer, if building work on the enclosure goes to plan.

Around 200,000 worth of renovations are set to begin next month so that the old gorilla pen can be transformed into a panda paradise.

The enclosure will be double the size of the old pen, with high climbing frames and mature trees, to make sure conditions mirror their original setting in their homeland.

Bosses said the Chinese government was "95 per cent" happy with their renovation plans for bears Tian Tian and Yuangguang, which will get under way in two to three weeks.

Meanwhile, the zoo has received "overwhelming support" from hundreds of schools, organisations and individuals who want to grow bamboo to feed the panda pair.

Chief operating officer Gary Wilson said Edinburgh Zoo would have to come up with a management programme for bamboo to make sure it is the right type, grown without pesticides and in the right conditions.

Mr Wilson said: "We expect to start working on the enclosure in February and the work will take four or five months.

"We'll be taking our time, getting it right.

"There will, of course, be two separate outdoor and indoor enclosures because pandas don't spend their time together in the wild.

"The pair will only come together between March and May.

"The plan is to fill in the gorilla moats (deep holes that prevented the gorillas from leaping out of their pen], which will double up the floor space for the pandas. We'll plant fully mature trees and recreate a forest.

"The Chinese government is 95 per cent happy with the designs, they've got no big tweaks."

Mr Wilson added that the zoo had been growing five different types of bamboo over the past two years. He said: "Pandas like several varieties of bamboo, so we've been testing planting it for some time.

"There has been a huge response to our appeal for bamboo - around a couple of hundred people have been in touch - so we're looking at a database that could show us how to manage the quantities we need and where it'll come from."

The pair will munch through 30kg of bamboo every day.

Tian Tian and Yuangguang - the first pandas to reside in the UK for 17 years - are due to be brought over on a transportation plane and then driven to Edinburgh in a specially-equipped vehicle. The date of their arrival has not yet been announced, but if renovations go to plan they could be ready to welcome the duo in June.

Their arrival is set to boost visitor numbers to the attraction dramatically, with zoo bosses estimating that numbers could double to more than a million. When pandas were introduced at Adelaide Zoo in Australia, visitor numbers soared by 70 per cent.

Edinburgh Zoo will become one of only a handful of attractions in the western hemisphere 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.