The film, which has gone viral on Chinese social networks, appears to show a zookeeper striking a young panda at a key base for the country’s panda conservation and captive breeding programme.
Authorities at the Giant Panda Research Centre in Sichuan “gifted” the Scottish zoo its two pandas – Tian Tian and Yang Guang – three years ago as part of a high-profile £6m deal.
However, the footage, which purportedly shows a keeper raining down four blows on a panda cub’s snout, has prompted calls for Edinburgh Zoo to sever all ties with the Chinese government facility.
When the negotiations for the panda loan were confirmed six years ago, Iain Valentine, head of animals and conservation at Edinburgh Zoo, paid tribute to the Chinese facility for the way they look after the endangered animals.
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Speaking after a visit to the centre, he told The Scotsman: “I was struck by the number of pandas they have there and the care they get, but what was really impressive was to see giant pandas in the context of their wild environment. The centre is at the heart of the national park and there are wild pandas in the mountains around it.”
However, the new film, which was leaked online in China last week, has provoked widespread anger among the public and animal welfare campaigners..
In a letter sent to board members of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the body which runs the zoo, the charity Animal Concern condemned its ongoing association with the Chinese organisation and its breeding programme.
John Robins, secretary of Animal Concern Scotland, said: “The footage seems to show a zookeeper using quite sharp blows and making contact with the panda’s snout, probably one of the most sensitive areas of the animal. You can see the panda recoiling in pain.
“I understand after this clip was shown in China, there was outrage. I’m concerned at the way this animal was mistreated but I think the video shows a lot more than cruelty to a panda.”
Mr Robins added: “Edinburgh Zoo has claimed that the giant panda breeding programme is part of a serious scientific exercise to return captive bred animals to the wild.
“But the few seconds of video shows that not to be the case. It shows three casually dressed people in the panda enclosure. Such close contact between humans and animals makes it difficult if not impossible for such animals to be successfully returned to the wild.
“I’m afraid the Edinburgh Zoo panda project has little if any conservation value and is a cynical tool of the Chinese government.”
.The letter from the charity urges zoo officials to scrap the multi-million pound panda lease agreement that is due to last until at least 2021.
It adds that should the termination of the contract not be possible, they should “think again” before attempting to breed the pair next summer.
However, hopes remain high that one of Scotland’s pandas will produce their own offspring in what would be a major tourism boost. It has been estimated a panda cub could be worth as much as £100m to Edinburgh Zoo.
A spokeswoman for Edinburgh Zoo said: “It would be inappropriate for us to comment, but we understand the individual in question has been suspended and the incident is being investigated.”
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