The only giant pandas in the UK will remain in Scotland for another two years after the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) announced last week it had extended its ten year loan deal with China.
Since 2011, the RZSS has paid an annual fee of one million dollars -- currently around £750,000 -- to keep Tian Tian and Yang Guang, whose names translate as Sweetie and Sunshine. However, the extended agreement is for only $500,000 per year.
David Field, RZSS chief executive, said of the reduced sum: "There are very standard terms in these agreements with the Chinese and in terms of extension agreements, that would normally be the case."
He added: "What was very different for us was the decision about how long the pandas would stay, and two years is a period that both parties felt was the right time.
"We have kind of missed two years of the agreement because of the pandemic so far, and also two years is just about the right time in terms of us preparing for the animals to go back and preparing for a new species, so that was the crucial change for us."
Mr Field said there would be no further extension to the arrangement, which will see the iconic animals return to China in December 2023, by which time they will be 20 years old
He said: "They will be going home -- they are China's pandas -- but it's really important that we plan that transfer so that the new keeping staff in China can come over and meet the pandas and spend time with them beforehand and also for our staff to travel with the pandas.
"That handover period and settling the bears in is really important, and that is impossible at the moment. It's really about planning the future, and one hopes that in two years time one will be able to travel easily.
"Extending the agreement also gives people a chance to come and say goodbye. It's clear from social media how many people are excited to come back and see them again."
The RZSS has confirmed that plans will be made to convert the giant panda habitat at the zoo for an "exciting" new species to arrive.
Mr Field said: "Pandas are incredible and Scotland has taken those two individuals to their hearts. But over the last year or so we have been focusing on bringing a whole array of experiences to the Zoo, from giraffes and sloths to partula snails.
"It's our job to make people excited about them all. Crucially (the new species) will be about the experience."
The pandas will return to China without having any offspring, however, despite eight attempts at artificial insemination since 2013.
Tian Tian, the female, produced twins prior to coming to Scotland, but annual efforts to produce a cub in Scotland have failed. Yang Guang was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2018, and was later castrated. The RZSS has confirmed that breeding will not be attempted during the two year extended period.