Pandas ‘won’t be seen this year’

Grin and bear it: Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne makes friends with a panda during a visit to their conservation centre in China
Grin and bear it: Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne makes friends with a panda during a visit to their conservation centre in China
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THEIR state-of-the-art enclosure is ready and a generous supply of fresh bamboo has been procured, but the two giant pandas bound for Edinburgh Zoo are understood to have postponed their public debut.

It had been hoped that Tian Tian and Yang Guang – Sweet and Sunshine – would go on show before the end of the year, but The Scotsman has learned that unexplained delays in their travel plans mean the Chinese guests are unlikely to be seen by visitors until the new year.

The delay is a blow for the zoo, which had anticipated a boom in festive ticket sales.

The deal to bring the male and female bears to Scotland was sealed in January. The pandas had been expected to take up residence in their £300,000 enclosure next month and, after a settling-in period, make their first public appearance at Christmas.

The pandas, currently in quarantine in China, have already featured in UK-wide campaigns to promote Edinburgh’s festive attractions.

However, plans to use them in the city’s first television advertising campaign are now on hold until it becomes clearer when visitors will be able to see them.

Edinburgh Airport has yet to be given an arrival date to put the necessary security arrangements in place, while VisitScotland is telling potential visitors that it is only “hopeful” that the pandas will arrive before Christmas.

One member of staff at the zoo said: “We are still hoping the pandas will arrive before the end of the year, we don’t know much more than that. But whenever they do arrive, people won’t be able to see for a couple of weeks while they settle in.”

A source at the attraction, which has been in talks with the Chinese authorities over the pandas for three-and-a-half years, added: “An announcement is pretty imminent that the pandas will be coming by a certain date, but we won’t be in a position to say when people will be able to see them for a while. That will be down to the judgment of the keepers and will be based on how they are settling into their new environment.”

The zoo has spent up to £300,000 constructing an enclosure, complete with a panda kitchen and climbing frame, surrounded by bulletproof glass to allow up to 600 spectators an hour to see the animals.

It emerged this month that the zoo had decided to import the majority of the bamboo it needs from a farm in the Netherlands – at an estimated cost of £70,000 a year.

Before the Chinese government agreed to hand over the pandas, the zoo had to demonstrate that it had the commitment and expertise to care for the endangered species.

Under the official agreement between the UK and China, which will see the pandas embark on a breeding programme, they will live at the zoo under the “custodianship” of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

A spokeswoman for Edinburgh Zoo said: “The Chinese authorities are yet to confirm an arrival date. We’ve been working hard to prepare for the needs of our newest residents and we are ready for them whenever the Chinese government makes the decision to send Tian Tian and Yang Guang.

“We are anticipating an arrival before the end of the year and the pandas will be ready to meet the public once they are settled in their new home.”