HAVING overseen a failed £20m, 12-year project aimed at persuading two Giant Pandas to breed, executives at Edinburgh Zoo have decided to turn their long farewell into a circus.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) announced this week that the two creatures, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, will return to their native China later this year. The pair had arrived in 2011 to great fanfare in an arrangement initially costing £8m, although at least one animal welfare charity believes the real cost, including a £2.5m refurbishment of their enclosure, is closer to £20m.

It seems, though, that the zoo is going the extra mile to make the most of their twin, ursine attractions in the little time they remain in Scotland. They don’t use live animals in circuses any more but the RZSS have come up with the next best thing.

Edinburgh Zoo chiefs have assembled a dazzling suite of farewell ‘experiences’ for the two Giant Pandas and have thoughtfully invited the public to join them … for a price.

The economy package is a Bamboo Brunch which allows panda enthusiasts access to a one-hour tour “where you will discover more about this beloved species with our charity’s giant panda experts before enjoying a delicious brunch in our mansion house”.

READ MORE:Edinburgh Zoo's pandas set to return to China

The Herald: Two pandas

Not yet feeling the pinch from the cost-of-living crisis and energy price hikes? Then perhaps you might fancy the Giant Panda Magic Moments experience.

“Get closer than you ever imagined with our 30-minute Giant Panda Magic Moment. With this experience you’ll go behind-the-scenes and help our expert keepers feed Yang Guang a special treat while learning all about this beloved species.” Yours for just £500.

Perhaps, for an extra consideration, you and a friend might want to get up close and personal to Tian Tian and Yang Guang and tell them yourself how much their presence in Scotland has meant to you. If so, then the ‘bespoke’ VIP package is the very dabs.

According to Edinburgh Zoo’s marketing division, “this unique opportunity takes you behind-the-scenes to meet the animals you love most with RZSS director David Field as your expert guide. For a limited time only, this includes guaranteed access to meet and feed a giant panda – plus, four more animals of your choice. Directors’ Tours also include a luxurious breakfast, champagne lunch and unparalleled access to the zoo. Yours for a very competitive £5,000.

Yesterday morning, though, I made a rather more humble farewell to Scotland’s two most celebrated visitors. I’d visited them not long after their arrival and was happy to see that they’d since moved to a larger garden suite at the top of zoo. Along the way I pass the meerkats whose agent, capitalising on their television stardom, seemed to have negotiated a decent patch for his clients down near the entrance to the zoo.

There’s a Sumatran Tiger on the way up to the Giant Panda enclave, and so you feel compelled to drop in for a visit. He occupies an area no larger than an average-sized café with barely 50 feet separating the wire mesh roof from the floor. It looks, to me, bleak, desolate and cramped.

An assortment of little signs impart a sort of CBeebies guide to Giant Pandas. Thus we’re told they have powerful jaws and that their skulls are perfectly designed for eating tough bamboo. They’re very picky eaters. Bamboo is a type of woody grass and it makes up 98% of a panda’s diet. And that the best way to spot a panda is to act like a panda. “Be calm and peaceful,” we’re urged.

And now I’m at the glass-fronted entrance to Tian Tian’s apartment. There are nine of us, watching her lying on her back gorging on bamboo. Children are taking snaps. “Make sure you all enjoy this special experience,” a young dad tells his two children. They then depart for the upper enclosure where the male, Yang Tuang, is fast asleep. Disappointed at this lesser ‘experience’ they soon return to the slightly more animated Tian Tian.

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From each of these little vestibules they can access a sizeable garden, but one that’s no larger than any you’d see in some of Scotland’s more arboreal neighbourhoods. The pair have been padding about this micro-approximation of their homeland bamboo forest for 12 years, and not for the first time I'm asking for what purpose.

Eight failed attempts have been made to artificially inseminate Tian Tian, leaving RZSS Chief Executive David Field to conclude that she just didn’t fancy her intended mate and that “perhaps Tian Tian wouldn’t have swiped right” if she’d encountered Yang Guang on Tinder. Not to worry though, Mr Field said that another “exciting” species would be along to replace the pandas.

The Herald: Edinburgh Zoo panda Yang Guang.

John Robins, the outgoing Secretary of Animal Concern in Scotland has been a long-standing critic of the 12-year leasing arrangement. In 2021 he told The Herald: "I’m glad this circus in a zoo is coming to an end, but I’m concerned about what will happen to the political prisoner pandas if they are sent back to China. Old non-breeding pandas are expensive to keep and have little financial value.

“No matter how much of a rosy picture the zoo tries to paint they cannot camouflage the fact that this last ten years have been a very expensive failure. Including the £8m or so it cost to lease the animals from the Chinese Government and the £2.5m cost of building a new enclosure, I reckon this exercise has cost the zoo in the region of £20m.”

Elena Edwards, membership secretary of Animal Concern, said last night: “The way in which these pandas have been exploited for the sake of public attraction is abhorrent. If Tian Tian had a choice, perhaps she would have ‘swiped’ the whole concept of flying pandas across the world for an ill-conceived breeding program off the table.

“Far from protecting this endangered species, ambitions to produce cute baby pandas is putting them through unnecessary and unnatural stress. It is disgusting they are perceived as little more than replaceable "exciting" new attractions.”

The RZSS robustly reject such criticisms. Mr Field said: “Pandas are an amazing ambassador for a conservation success story. We are delighted that since their arrival, the IUCN status of giant pandas in the wild has improved from endangered to vulnerable thanks to conservation efforts.

“Like all the animals in our care, they play a critically important role in attracting and engaging hundreds of thousands of visitors each year so they can learn about the threats animals face in the wild and the action they can take to help. Their power to connect people with nature and encourage behaviour change is invaluable. 

“A cub would have generated even more interest in giant pandas and given Tian Tian a wonderful opportunity to be a mother again, after she gave birth in China.

“We are very proud of the contribution we have made to giant panda breeding research alongside our partners at the University of Edinburgh and our findings have been of real benefit to international efforts to protect the species.”

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Yet, when I walk around this zoo I can’t shake the feeling of taking a step back into a Victorian era of flee circuses and performing animals. And I wonder if it would be more beneficial to recreate, perhaps, a patch of destroyed, desolate rain forest to show what’s driving numerous species to extinction.

Keeping animals in zoos won’t save a single wild species in the long term – only protecting their natural environment will save them and our planet. Could Edinburgh Zoo not install a virtual ‘zoo’, comprising a hall of interactive screens where visitors can view real animals in their natural environment, instead of semi-domesticated or zoo-frustrated shadows of wild animals which can never return to what wild spaces are left?

And besides, we have access to the wildlife documentaries of Sir David Attenborough, Gordon Buchanan and Doug Allan, each one a masterpieces of the film-maker’s art. A single one-hour programme can raise awareness across the world of the challenges faced by the wild creatures with whom we share it much more than an expensive visit to gawp at them through glass so that we can collect another ‘experience’.

But then these films cost nothing to watch or download, and so there is no money to be made from them.