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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Steph Brawn

Scotland waves goodbye to 'utter rockstar' pandas after 12 years

BACK in 2011, the arrival of giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang to Scotland’s capital was a huge moment that made headlines all over the world.

Scots came out in their droves to see the pair being escorted to Edinburgh Zoo as part of a 10-year agreement – which was extended by two years - between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA).

But for the past 12 years, everyone has known their time at the twin enclosures just west of the city centre would come to an end and today (Thursday November 30) will be the last opportunity for people to see Tian Tian and Yang Guang in action before they enter quarantine ahead of their journey home to China in early December.

David Field, chief executive of the RZSS told The National it is the right time for the pandas – who were the first in the UK for 17 years - to go home, but admitted it has been an emotional year saying goodbye.

“This was a big deal [when the zoo got them] because pandas hadn’t been in the UK for many years,” said Field.

“It’s important for the CWCA and Chinese culture for pandas in their twilight years to go home. They are now 20 so we knew the time was coming.

“I would adore for Tian Tian and Yang Guang to stay, but we knew they always had to go home and this is the right time because they are still strong and healthy.”

Some of the zoo staff will be accompanying Tian Tian and Yang Guang on their journey next month – the exact timing of which is being kept secret – while their Chinese keeper will be working with them for a few days before they leave.

Zookeeper Kirsty MacDonald has been working with the pair for the last seven years after being one of the first members of the public to see them when they arrived.

She said saying goodbye to animals is one of the tougher parts of her job.

“We are used to animals going off to other zoos but it is a trickier part of the job because you do build relationships with these animals over years,” she said.

The National: Kirsty MacDonald has been working with the pandas for seven yearsKirsty MacDonald has been working with the pandas for seven years (Image: NQ)

“There has always been an end point, but the fact it’s so close now makes it that bit more real.

“They are fantastic animals who are entirely different from each other. They like to keep us on our toes.”

Field – who has been chief executive for three years - said Tian Tian and Yang Guang had an impact on him from the first time he met them in 2020, describing them as “utter rockstars” of the animal world.

He believes one of their biggest legacies has been giving people a deeper connection to nature that he feels we have lost in the age of rapidly-advancing technology.

“There is something about Yang Guang and Tian Tian that just changes you. They are the utter rockstars of the animal world,” said Field (pictured below).

“I’m fortunate to be able to get close to the animals in my job, but for some reason these two had such an effect on me.

“I saw this wee kid this week who was probably only two or three but she’s been to see the pandas almost every week for the past year.

“She was waving to them and I was filling up. Whether she understands they’re leaving or not or whether she waves every day, it shows this incredible impact that an animal can have.”

Over the past year – branded the Giant Goodbye - the zoo has hosted talks around the enclosure and events such as panda breakfasts, where people can see them being fed before the wider site opens.

Field added: “It’s made me realise the power and the opportunity we have with these incredible animals for turning people back to nature. They can inspire people to love nature again.

“We’ve lost that love of nature as a society and we need to do everything we can to get people back to loving nature.”

One of the most widely publicised parts of Tian Tian and Yang Guang’s story over the past 12 years has been their failure to produce a cub, with pregnancies failing in both 2013 and 2015.

Fatherhood will sadly not happen for Yang Guang after he had to have his testicles removed in 2018 following the development of tumours. However, there is still a chance Tian Tian could become a mother after the move back to China.

MacDonald said there were still plenty of positives to be taken from the zoo's attempts to make it happen.

She said: “Panda reproduction is not an easy thing.

“It would have been lovely for Tian Tian to be a mother here and for the public to see that but the way we see it is we have contributed so much to the research side of things because these guys have been taking part in studies that have been vital to certain projects.

“Just in the time they have been here we’ve been able to do so much through research and education that we feel as if we’ve contributed in such a big way towards the education and conservation of pandas.”

Although it is not known where the pandas will permanently stay in China, their first stop is expected to be at a mountain sanctuary in the Sichuan province which is home to 40 giant pandas.

Field: “Yang Guang is very much a people panda, so there are places [where he could go] where people can see pandas.

“Tian Tian will hopefully have a wonderful retirement forest, but we don’t know for sure.

“We’re setting up arrangements so we can keep up to date information on what’s happening with them.”

Pandas have generally been a diplomatic gesture from China, but there is now a fear Tian Tian and Yang Guang may be the last we see in the UK given relationships between China and the west have been souring.

Field would not be drawn on the politics but, given the successful housing of the pandas in Edinburgh, he hoped there could continue to be collaboration on conservation and research.

“I do hope in future there can be collaborations. We would love to see pandas back in the UK.”

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