Giant pandas at Edinburgh Zoo may have to return to China

Edinburgh Zoo may have to return its giant pandas to China due to financial pressures created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tian Tian and Yang Guang arrived on a 10-year loan from China in December 2011 and are the UK’s only giant pandas.

But the mating pair, who cost about £1m a year to lease, may have to return there next year thanks to a £2m blackhole in funds.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which runs both Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park, said it suffered after it was forced to close for three months during the summer.

David Field, chief executive of the Society, says the charity will have to “seriously consider every potential saving” including their giant panda contract.

Mr Field added: “Although our parks are open again, we lost around £2m last year and it seems certain that restrictions, social distancing and limits on our visitor numbers will continue for some time, which will also reduce our income.”

The zoo was not eligible for the government’s zoo fund, which was aimed at smaller zoos.

Mr Field said: “We have to seriously consider every potential saving and this includes assessing our giant panda contract and the cost of their daily care.

“At this stage, it is too soon to say what the outcome will be. We will be discussing next steps with our colleagues in China over the coming months.”

The pair, known affectionately as Sweetie and Sunshine, live in separate enclosures and only meet once a year in the breeding season.

In 2012, the pandas were brought together for the first time in a “love tunnel” when female Tian Tian was ready to reproduce.

Although “sparks flew” between the two, they failed to mate and artificial insemination has been tried every year since 2013.

In 2018 Yang Guang had surgery to remove both testicles after tumours were found. Tian Tian has had cubs in China, but not since arriving in the UK.

Mr Field said: “Yang Guang and Tian Tian have made a tremendous impression on our visitors over the last nine years, helping millions of people connect to nature and inspiring them to take an interest in wildlife conservation.

“I would love for them to be able to stay for a few more years with us and that is certainly my current aim.”

Edinburgh zoo is part of several conservation projects, including one to reintroduce Scottish wildcats.

However, Mr Field said projects like that may also have to be scrapped due to Brexit and being unable to apply for grants from the European Union.

He added: “We still need to reduce costs to secure our future. It may be that some of our incredibly important conservation projects, including the vital lifeline for Scotland’s wildcats, may have to be deferred, postponed or even stopped.”

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