Edinburgh Zoo is to import 15 tonnes of organic bamboo shoots from mainland Europe at an annual cost of £70,000, in order to feed a pair of pandas donated by China.
Animal welfare groups said yesterday that the fortnightly, 1,200 mile round trip from a farm in the Netherlands raised questions over the wisdom and long-term sustainability of basing the 10-year breeding programme in Britain.
The loaned pandas, which will cost the zoo £1m a year to keep, are expected to be brought from their current home in bamboo forests at the Ya'an reserve in Sichuan arriving in the Scottish capital in time for Christmas.
It is hoped the presence of Tian Tian and Yang Guang – the first pandas in the UK for 17 years – will help turn the troubled zoo into an international visitor attraction.
More than 15,000kg of bamboo a year will be loaded onto lorries from the farm on the outskirts of Amsterdam and taken to Rotterdam. From there it will be transported by ferry to Harwich, before being driven to Edinburgh. Will Travers, the chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, described the plans as "madness".
He said: "Panda conservation should take place in China, where both giant pandas and bamboo occur naturally. If Edinburgh has panda cash to spare, that is where it should be invested."
A spokesman for Animal Defenders International, a UK-based animal protection and conservation organisation, said while the panda programme would be a "potential money-spinner" for the zoo, it would have little long term benefit for the species.
"There is very little evidence of successful conservation breeding, the problem being that animals bred in zoos can rarely be released into the wild, so they are primarily public spectacles who do not exhibit natural behaviours, as this is an unnatural environment for them," the spokesman said.
The zoo, a registered charity, said it could not afford to rely on home-grown bamboo, which will account for 15 per cent of the animals' needs, or risk interrupting the supply of shoots, the only the food the endangered species will eat.
It said it hoped to reduce its dependence on imported bamboo after the first three years of the breeding programme.
Giant pandas can consume 60 metres of bamboo stems each day. In order to replicate their natural diet in the mountain forests of central China they will be offered 25 different species of the plant.