Is the world ready for a Scottish panda?
Two giant pandas, one enormous task: to mate during their 10-year stay at Edinburgh Zoo
All couples feel a certain amount of trepidation before shacking up together but surely nothing has ever compared to the weight of expectation being foisted on the shoulders of Tian Tian and Yang Guang.
When they were finally piped into their new home at Edinburgh Zoo yesterday, cheered on by thousands of flag-waving school children following five years of stop-start negotiation between Scotland and China, much was riding on the impending co-habitation of the giant pandas.
There was the small matter of saving the critically endangered species from extinction by getting on with the job of producing the world's first "MacPanda". And then there was the vital task of bolstering relations between their adopted country and the world's rapidly emerging economic power as their every move is webcast to a global audience via the internet. Interest in the pandas has been intense since talks began to bring the talismanic species to the UK. And there was relief when the FedEx Panda Express with a vet and two specialist animal handlers on board touched down at the city's airport.
The flight crew was met by a delegation which included Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Edinburgh's Lord Provost George Grubb. The waiting media was given only a tantalising glimpse of the pair as they were unloaded in separate clear plastic cages in which they had made the nine-hour flight from Chengdu, close to the Ya'an reserve in Sichuan where they were born in 2003. They were then taken to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunlight) now have 10 years to do in Scotland what Ching Ching, Chia Chia and others spectacularly failed to achieve in London Zoo until 1994 – the last time a panda was on UK soil.
Officials at Edinburgh Zoo, which is paying the Chinese government £640,000 a year to host the pair, has gone to great lengths to entice them into a successful act of captive procreation. Their private boudoirs will be linked by a "love tunnel" to facilitate an encounter during the 24-36 hour annual window when the urge strikes. The enclosure has three dens, two pools and a viewing area. The zoo is also budgeting £70,000 a year for the pair's bamboo.
Hugh Roberts, chief executive of Edinburgh Zoo, said: "We see the pandas as catalysts for research, education and conservation, aimed at improving the future for pandas."
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