In December 2011, Edinburgh Zoo welcomed two giant pandas, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, with great anticipation and excitement. There were hopes that these pandas would contribute to the conservation efforts and increase panda numbers. However, after 12 years, it is bittersweet to see these beloved animals prepare to return to their homeland, China.
Tian Tian and Yang Guang have not successfully bred during their time in Edinburgh. Despite efforts to create a love tunnel and even numerous rounds of IVF, panda cubs were not conceived. Their lack of connection and compatibility is evident, and if pandas used Tinder, they would have swiped left on each other.
Preparations for their journey back to China have been underway for years. Strict quarantine and paperwork have been necessary, along with ensuring a healthy supply of bamboo, their primary food source. The pandas' departure from Edinburgh Zoo marks the end of their loan agreement, which required the zoo to pay significant amounts to the Chinese government for the privilege of hosting the pandas.
Simon Girling, the zoo's head vet, has been witness to the effort put into encouraging the pandas to breed. Unfortunately, their attempts were unsuccessful, with Tian Tian failing to carry a cub to full term and Yang Guang becoming infertile due to testicular cancer.
Preparing the pandas for their journey has involved a minimum of 30 days in quarantine. The keepers have been meticulous in following disinfection protocols and providing additional measures to ensure the safety of both the animals and humans involved. The paperwork and logistics of shipping pandas across the globe are extensive, from obtaining export and import permits to testing bamboo for a clean bill of health.
On departure day, custom officers will check the crates before the pandas are loaded onto a low loader and driven to the airport. A keeper and vet from Edinburgh Zoo, along with a keeper from China, will accompany the pandas on the plane ride. Sedation or anesthesia is not required, as the pandas are generally relaxed and adaptable.
The pandas will fly to Chengdu, then continue their journey to a wildlife sanctuary in Bifengxia, where they will undergo quarantine. The departure will undoubtedly be an emotional moment, as the Edinburgh Zoo team bids farewell to Tian Tian and Yang Guang, knowing they have cared for these pandas for a significant period of time.
While their time in Edinburgh may have come to an end, we can hope that Tian Tian and Yang Guang will carry fond memories of their time in Scotland. For the zoo and its dedicated staff, there will be a panda-sized hole in their lives, as they reflect on the joy and challenges of having these extraordinary creatures as part of their zoo family.