Yang Guang and Tian Tian -the UK’s only giant pandas – are leaving for China today after spending 12 years in Scotland.
For more than a decade the large, furry animals have been the star attraction of Edinburgh Zoo since arriving in 2011.
However, they are now returning under the terms of a 10-year agreement between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, which was extended by two years due to the COVID pandemic.
David Field, RZSS chief executive, said the pair have had an “incredible impact by inspiring millions of people to care about nature”.
After arriving on British shores, the aim had been for female panda Tian Tian and male Yang Guang to produce the pitter-patter of tiny paws, but they did not produce a cub.
Visitors were given a final chance to say farewell to the bears last week before they were prepared for their return flight to China, with each travelling in a specially designed metal crate.
‘A sad and emotional time’
Michael Livingstone, a senior animal keeper at the zoo, will join them for the journey, along with an RZSS vet.
Mr Livingstone described looking after the pandas as the “highlight of my career”.
He said: “They’re very different to look after. As a team we have looked after many different species of bear and we were fairly confident we knew what kind of hurdles we might need to cross and jump over for looking after pandas, and when they arrived it was completely different to what we thought.
“They are a very sensitive, very specialised species so we very quickly learned all the different things we needed to do with them or around them.”
He added: “It is sad for us that they are going back, I think it’s always been one of those things that’s just been in the future and now we’re at the point where it’s actually happening.
“I can speak for myself and the other keepers in the team at the zoo that have looked after them – it’s going to be a bit of a sad and emotional time.”
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Professor Simon Girling, head of veterinary services at the RZSS, said the pandas have been popular with staff and visitors alike and will be missed – adding their presence at the zoo has helped with research and conservation efforts.
“It’s sad that Tian Tian hasn’t bred here, we would obviously really have liked her to have done so, but this is not unusual with giant pandas, they are difficult to breed, there is a reason why they’re endangered,” he said.
“But at the same time, we’ve been able to collaborate with so many researchers around the world and we’ve been able to draw so many members of the public in to understand our conservation message here, and I think that has been a really positive thing, and we’ve got two lovely healthy pandas so we’re really pleased with that.”
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