Edinburgh Zoo prepares for arrival of pandas from China

The two giant pandas begin the long journey from China to Scotland

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Last-minute preparations are being made for the arrival of two giant pandas which are en route from China to their new home, Edinburgh Zoo.

Tian Tian and Yang Guang will arrive in Edinburgh at lunchtime on Sunday on a specially-chartered flight.

Officials hope their presence will boost tourism and the Scottish economy.

Animal welfare campaigners have criticised the zoo for accepting the pandas, saying it is a "primarily commercial deal".

The eight-year-old pair, the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years, will stay at the zoo for at least 10 years.

It is hoped they will eventually breed.

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If the zoo were serious about helping pandas, they would be asking the public to donate to schemes that protect pandas in their native habitats”

End Quote Peta spokesman

They have left China on the Boeing 777F flight, the "FedEx Panda Express".

Gerald P Leary, president of FedEx Express Europe, said: "The specially-chartered flight follows months of preparation and planning to ensure the pandas' travel is safe and comfortable at every stage of their journey."

A vet and two animal handlers from Edinburgh Zoo and the Bifengxia Panda Base are on board.

The arrival date - which coincides with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond's visit to China - had been kept under wraps until earlier this week.

Tian Tian, meaning "sweetness", and Yang Guang, meaning "sunshine", will have two weeks to settle in to their new enclosure before going on display to the public.

Panda Express A plane has been specially chartered to bring the pandas to Edinburgh

Their arrival will mark the culmination of a five-year effort to bring the giant pandas to Scotland.

Zoo chiefs have described it as a "historic occasion" for the visitor attraction and the UK as a whole.

A spokeswoman for VisitScotland said: "The pandas will be a fantastic asset to Edinburgh Zoo, providing people with even more compelling reasons to visit this fantastic attraction and indeed the city itself.

"The zoo is offering a unique opportunity to see these charming animals, helping to encourage increased visitor numbers to Edinburgh and Scotland."

However, animal welfare campaigners have criticised the move, suggesting it is not a credible way to go about saving the giant panda.

'Retrograde step'

A spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) said: "Edinburgh Zoo is putting the 'con' in conservation by trying to hoodwink the public into believing that the salvation of pandas lies in warehousing these sensitive animals.

"Edinburgh Zoo knows that captive pandas are notoriously poor breeders and that only one zoo-reared panda has ever been reintroduced into the wild - that unfortunate animal died within a year.

Panda in FedEx container Tian Tian has already been put into a crate for the long journey

"If the zoo were serious about helping pandas, they would be asking the public to donate to schemes that protect pandas in their native habitats."

Chris Draper, of the Born Free Foundation, said the panda deal was a "short-sighted and retrograde step".

He said: "Over time, I suspect we will see that this has less to do with conservation or education, and much more to do with resurrecting the fortunes of a fading visitor attraction.

"Tian Tian and Yang Guang are not 'flagships', nor even diplomatic gifts, but commodities in a primarily commercial exchange."

Business links

Online footage of the two animals, from four hidden "panda-cams" in their enclosures, is expected to attract viewers from around the world.

Zoo bosses are hopeful that the pandas will give birth to cubs - the first to be born in Scotland.

The Scottish government said the loan of the pandas symbolised a "growing friendship" between Scotland and China.

Panda soft toys at Edinburgh Zoo gift shop All the panda merchandise is already on display in the Edinburgh Zoo gift shop

Alex Salmond wants to strengthen ties between the governments and forge better cultural and business links during his trip to several mainland cities and Hong Kong.

The first minister's itinerary includes an address to a St Andrew's Day celebration in Beijing.

He will also visit the Eastern Qing Tombs, an ancient resting place for Chinese emperors which is being digitally mapped in a project led by Historic Scotland.

And he will travel to Shandong Province to discuss renewable energy projects and visit the Shenzhen special economic zone.

Mr Salmond said: "I am delighted to be visiting the great nation of China again. As the world's fastest growing major economy, it is vital that government, business and cultural organisations enhance our already strong ties with China.

"We are vigorously promoting Scotland as an attractive place for investment, trade, research, tourism and cultural associations - and that will be my focus when meeting our hosts in China."

This is Mr Salmond's third trip to China and follows a Chinese delegation's visit to Scotland in January as part of a four-day trade mission to the UK.

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