Pandas prepare for return to Britain after 16 years

Edinburgh Zoo hopes to be first to host the animals in this country since 1994 as Prime Minister backs deal

Not content with saving the world's banking system, Gordon Brown yesterday turned his attention to giant pandas.

He gave his backing to attempts by Edinburgh Zoo to bring two of the endangered animals from China to a new Scottish home. If the zoo's project is successful, they will be the first pandas in Britain since 1994.

In a letter to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which hopes to get the pandas on loan from China in 2010, the Prime Minister said the Government "strongly supports" international co-operation to promote the conservation of wildlife.

The society announced its proposal to include a pair of breeding pandas in its animal collection at Edinburgh Zoo in May. It has been proposed they would be on loan for 10 years, in which time, it is hoped, they will have cubs.

Zoo representatives have visited China to establish a closer relationship with its officials in the field of conservation and research. A "letter of intent" has been signed by both parties, signifying a commitment to bring pandas to the Scottish capital.

If successful, Edinburgh would be only the eighth zoo in the West to care for a species which has become a symbol of endangered wildlife. However, negotiations with the Chinese are sensitive. In the past, pandas were given or loaned to Western zoos, including London, with the aim of opening up relations between China and the West, in so-called "panda diplomacy".

In Mr Brown's letter to David Windmill, the chief executive of the society, he said: "The Government strongly supports international co-operation to promote the conservation of the world's wildlife. We therefore welcome the progress which the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has made in its discussions with the Chinese authorities and wish you continuing success in bringing these discussions to a satisfactory conclusion."

Mr Windmill said yesterday: "The process of bringing giant pandas to Scotland is a long and detailed one that requires political co-operation at the highest level, so having the support of our Prime Minister is essential."

Giant pandas come from the mountain ranges of central China, in the provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu. The population in the wild is said to be about 1,500, although experts are not sure how badly they were affected after an earthquake hit the region in May. Any pandas destined for Edinburgh would be from the Wolong breeding centre, in Sichuan province, which was near the epicentre of the earthquake.

London Zoo has kept several pandas from 1938 onwards. Some of the animals became famous as a result of exposure on television – the first was Chi-Chi, who was acquired in 1958 for the then enormous sum of £12,000. Attempts to mate her with the only other giant panda outside China, An-An from Moscow Zoo, attracted international interest and ensured her fame.

In 1974, "Ted Heath's Pandas" – Chia-Chia (a male) and Ching-Ching (a female) – were presented to the British people by the Chinese government on the occasion of the then prime minister Edward Heath's visit to China. London Zoo kept two more animals, Bao Bao and Ming Ming, in the early 1990s but there have been no giant pandas in British zoos since.