Who, What, Why: How do you fly a panda 5,000 miles?

  • 5 December 2011
  • From the section Magazine
Media captionThe two pandas arrived at Edinburgh airport safely after a nine hour flight from China

Two giant pandas have been flown from China to Scotland. How do you go about transporting rare creatures such a distance?

Edinburgh Zoo's newest residents, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, settled into their new home this weekend - the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years.

The arrival follows years of diplomacy and consultation with conservationists. But first came the not inconsiderable task of moving the creatures 5,000 miles (8,050km) from the Ya'an reserve in Chengdu, China.

Dave Lange, managing director of aircraft charters for FedEx Express, which transported the pandas, said the nine-hour flight required 21 months of co-ordination with three teams of specialists in three countries.

As with any operation to move rare animals, he said logistics was everything. "It takes a great deal of planning," he said.

Previously, his team has transported polar bears, white tigers, elephants, a rhinoceros, lions, gorillas and a 13ft (4m) tiger shark.

According to Mr Lange, plotting the mission began as far back as in March 2010. The plan involved three crews - one in China, one in Edinburgh and one in the US.

The 777 aircraft which carried the pandas was prepared and loaded with containers full of bamboo and drinking water in the US city of Memphis. It then flew to Chengdu via Anchorage, Alaska.

The enclosures in which the bears were carried were flown out from Memphis to China in advance of the trip and the animals were gradually introduced to them in the lead-up to their departure.

"You want to get the animals used to the enclosures prior to travel," said Mr Lange. "These were specially constructed to specifications set by the zoo and panda sanctuary.

"They're steel and Plexiglas, with shutters that can be held off or on if the panda wants to see or wants privacy. They are very spacious for the animals."

Once inside their enclosure, the pandas were driven by lorry to Chengdu airport where they were inspected by wildlife authorities. Detailed export documentation had to be prepared long in advance.

The enclosures were lifted onto the 777 using a standard cargo-loader. On-board, in addition to the flight crew, there was a load master - who had responsibility for ensuring the animals were safe and secure - two attendants and a veterinarian to monitor the animals during the flight.

Mr Lange said the pilot was asked to do his best to avoid turbulence. Television presenter Chris Packham said the take-off, flight and landing should not have been particularly onerous for the pandas.

"They'll be selected on the basis that they can travel that sort of distance without too much stress," he said.

"It's part of the modern age that we are confident enough to move them. It won't do them any harm, either physical or spiritual."

Once in Edinburgh, the pandas were accompanied by Lothian and Borders Police as they were driven to their £250,000 new home on the site of the former gorilla enclosure at the zoo.

Keepers will have to provide £70,000 worth of food each year, importing most of the required bamboo from the Netherlands.

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