Edinburgh pandas spend last day in the spotlight

Edinburgh Zoo visitors have been watching its giant pandas for the final time on Thursday before they are sent back to China.

Tian Tian and Yang Guang arrived in Scotland to huge fanfare in 2011.

But they are due to return in December under the terms of a 10-year loan, which was extended due to the pandemic.

The first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years, they touched down in a plane dubbed the “FedEx Panda Express” on 4 December 2011.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which runs the zoo, paid an annual fee of one million dollars (currently about £790,000) to China for the bears.

But within 12 months the “panda effect” had boosted ticket sales by about 50%.

In their time in Scotland, zoo staff and veterinarians from China made eight attempts at artificial insemination between the pair. However they failed to produce any cubs.

The last attempt was in 2021, after which the giant panda breeding programme was stopped.

Visitors were only able to see the pandas in their enclosure until 15:30 and then they were moved out of sight as keepers prepare the bears for the long journey home.

For security and safety reasons, the exact date and time of their departure has been withheld but it is believed they are leaving next week.

Michael Livingston
Image caption,Zookeeper Michael Livingstone will accompany the pandas to China

Since day one, zookeeper Michael Livingstone has looked after the bears, attended to their needs and got to know their different personalities.

He said: “Yang Guang is more of a people panda – he likes interaction with the keepers.

“Tian Tian on the other hand is completely different. She likes interaction when she wants it. She likes things her own way.”

Mr Livingstone said it was a day of mixed emotions as staff prepare to bid the pandas farewell.

“We’ve been anxious and nervous leading up to today and we’re feeling a bit of sadness as many of us have known them for the whole time they’ve been here,” he said.

“In the last week we’ve seen different visitors, including some regular panda visitors, who are starting to feel a bit sad and emotional about it.”

He told BBC Scotland how people travel from all over the UK and Europe just to see the pandas.

“We’ve had proposals and birthday parties by the enclosure, we’ve had it all,” he said.

“I’ll be travelling with them to China and I think it’ll be nice for them to have a familiar voice as they phase over.”

Tian Tian
Image caption,Tian Tian likes to keep to herself and choose when she interacts

Mr Livingstone told BBC Scotland News it had been a steep learning curve.

“We had looked after most bear species over the years but they were completely different. They needed a bit more attention, they were a lot more sensitive.

“Getting our head around the bamboo was one of the biggest things. We quickly learned there was a seasonality of the species they like. Some species they won’t eat at certain times of the year. We became experts in bamboo care.”

He will be the last person to say goodbye as he will be accompanying the bears on the journey back to China.

The zookeeper added: “They have consumed our lives over the past 12 years.”

Andi McLean
Image caption,Andi McLean said he was chosen to cut the ribbon on the panda’s enclosure when they first arrived in Edinburgh

Andi McLean, 53, made the three-hour train journey up from his home in Warrington in Cheshire to see the pandas for the last time – a trip he has four or five times a year since they first arrived in Scotland in 2011. “I’ve loved pandas since I was little,” he said, “So when the pandas came to the zoo, I was the first to book tickets to see them.

“Because of that, I was chosen to cut the ribbon and open the enclosure. So I’m here today to say goodbye.”

He has also travelled to several zoos in Europe and Asia over the last 20 years to see the bears, and says he owns more than 300 panda toys and a large collection of panda earrings.

“Nearly all of my T-shirts have a panda of some description, and my husband took me to see a newborn panda in Vienna for our honeymoon”, he said. “I’m upset that they didn’t have any babies but Tian Tian didn’t seem very settled. I thought it might happen eventually but it never did.”

Image caption,Lola travelled from her home in Northumberland on Thursday morning to see the pandas for the last time

Another panda superfan Lola, 10, travelled up with her mum Carly Miller, 34, from Amble in Northumberland, first thing on Thursday morning to see the pandas.

They made the last-minute decision on Wednesday night after discovering that the pandas would be leaving for good.

Lola told BBC Scotland how she has loved the pandas since she was born, adding: “I’ve got a panda quilt cover and a huge panda bear in my room at home, and little panda teddies too.

“I’m not surprised they’ve not had any children because they don’t like being together.

“It’s sad that never happened and they’re going back now. I know it has to be done but I’m sad that they have to be in crates for so many days.”

Image caption,Layla brought her panda teddy to say a final farewell to Tian Tian and Yang Guang after many previous visits

Moona Aslan, 36, brought her panda-obsessed toddler Layla to the zoo to say a final goodbye after many previous visits.

Ms Aslan said: “She has become obsessed with pandas. The last few weeks she’s been walking around the house with her little panda teddy and she won’t leave without it.

“I’ve been trying to get her to play with other teddies but it’s only her panda she’ll play with. We’ve got a membership so we are here every other weekend.”

The China Wildlife Conservation Association https://terserahapapun.com/ said that the country was now “well-prepared to welcome them back”.

When they arrive, the bears will begin a month’s quarantine at the China Giant Panda Conservation and Research Centre in Ya’an, in Sichuan province.

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