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Why are Edinburgh Zoo pandas heading back to China?

The pandas will return to China after 12 years (Edinburgh Zoo)
The pandas will return to China after 12 years (Edinburgh Zoo)

A famous pair of pandas, Yang Guang and Tian Tian, will be leaving Scotland's Edinburgh Zoo and heading back to China on Monday morning after 12 years.

It had been hoped female panda Tian Tian and male Yang Guang would breed while they were at the zoo, but they weren't able to produce a cub.

To help the pandas on their journey home, some new plans have been put in place by Edinburgh Zoo.

"There's a whole lot of logistics that have to happen,'' says Darren McGarry, who is the head of living collections at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which runs the zoo.

Pandas Yang Guang and Tian Tian have been put in quarantine since the start of November in line with animal health regulations and will also spend time in quarantine when they arrive in China, where they will live at a sanctuary in Sichuan province's capital, Chengdu.

Why are Edinburgh's pandas leaving the zoo?

Pandas Yang Guang and Tian Tian first arrived at the zoo back in 2011 as part of a 10-year agreement between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and the China Wildlife Conservation Association.

Their time in the UK was extended by another two years, but it has now been decided that the pandas will return to China.

Panda diplomacy is the term given for China leveraging the bears to improve international relations. It is thought to date back to the seventh century, when the Chinese empress Wu Zetian sent two bears as a gift to Japan.

Between the 1950s and '70s, China gifted pandas to zoos in a number of countries in the West, including the UK and USA.

Deals with zoos that have the animals on loan, such as Edinburgh Zoo, are expiring and no agreements have been made to replace them.

In the US, the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington DC is handing back its three pandas in November.

The Memphis Zoo returned both of its pandas in April, and San Diego Zoo’s pandas left in 2019. Over in Australia, Adelaide Zoo’s loan agreement for its two pandas expires in 2024.

Along with the quarantine measures already underway, the pandas will also undergo regular vet checks before their trip, including blood and poo sampling, to ensure they are healthy and do not take any diseases into China.

They'll each travel in a 190cm long, 146cm high and 127cm wide metal crate, and will travel with a keeper from Edinburgh Zoo and an RZSS vet.

"Although they look small, there's actually quite a bit of room for them inside, it's not tight," said the zoo's blacksmith Rab Clark. "I think they'll be fine. I'm sure they'll have a safe journey."

The pandas will have health checks, as well as food and water during the 12 to 13-hour flight.

''It's bizarre, I feel strange." Mr McGarry said. "I've always known they were leaving and we try not to get attached, but we have to care for them so we are emotionally attached.

"It's a difficult day. I'm excited because I will go back for a follow-up next year to make sure they're ok. I'm sure they will be. They're China's national treasure."