An easy life chomping bamboo leaves and snoozing is coming to an end for Tian Tian and Yang Guang. The giant Chinese pandas loaned to Edinburgh Zoo are now to perform £1,000 "meet and greets" with VIP visitors to help pay for their upkeep.
The zoo has launched an exclusive "panda keeper experience" which will allow "backstage" access to the private area of the animals' enclosure which is normally off-limits. The £1,000 ticket permits guests to hand-feed the elusive animals, which spend up to 14 hours a day sleeping.
The first pandas in Britain since 1994 have already welcomed 400,000 visitors since their arrival last December. Hailed as a coup by Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, the zoo is paying the Chinese government £660,000 a year to house the pair, who will remain in Edinburgh for 10 years. The zoo built identical enclosures for the pandas at a cost of £285,000 and is importing bamboo from Holland at a cost of £70,000 a year. The pandas' insurance is believed to run to £1m a year.
Corporate guests have helped plug the coffers with companies paying up to £12,000 for a buffet served at the zoo's historic Mansion House before an exclusive viewing. The new, hour-long "keeper experience" allows participants to meet a panda keeper and learn about their work with Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunshine). If the animals have not eaten too much bamboo during the day, visitors may get to feed them by hand. Up to four people, aged over 16, can take part in the after-hours visit. The £1,000 group ticket includes drinks and canapés (not shared with the pandas).
Darren McGarry, head of animals at the zoo, said: "We're delighted to be able to offer people the chance to get closer than ever before to these fascinating, rare and iconic animals."
The zoo said its income was on course to meet the cost of the pandas. Chris West, chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: "Launching Panda Keeper Experiences is not about extra income. It is important to remember that the [society] is a charity and receives no external funding and that our conservation programmes, including panda support, are achieved because of funds from our zoo activities and how they uniquely reconnect people with vanishing nature."
Yang Guang turned nine in August and Tian Tian reaches the same age tomorrow. The zoo hopes the pandas will produce cubs but there is only a 36-hour window each year in which the female ovulates. Despite creating private boudoirs linked by a "love tunnel" to facilitate an encounter in April, the duo remained just good friends.
The tourism industry estimated that the rise in visitors keen to see Tian Tian and Yang Guang could safeguard 38 jobs across the country in the leisure and retail sector.
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