The UK’s only two giant pandas leave Edinburgh Zoo later, heading back to China at the end of their 12-year loan.
The zoo has always known that Yang Guang and Tian Tian would eventually be sent home and preparations have been under way for years.
The initial 10-year loan was extended by two years but now the 20-year-old pandas, who have become a major visitor attraction, are about to head to Sichuan province.
“There’s a whole lot of logistics that have to happen,” says Darren McGarry, head of living collections at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which runs the zoo.
It has spent a long time making complex arrangements to safely send the pandas to the China Wildlife Conservation Association base at Chengdu.
Mr McGarry says the pair have been in quarantine for several weeks to comply with animal health regulations, as agreed with the UK and Chinese governments.
The pandas have regular vet checks, including blood and faecal sampling, to ensure they are healthy and do not take any disease into China.
They have been getting used to their new crates, built for their flight to China by the zoo’s blacksmith, Rab Clark.
He has constructed two bespoke metal crates complete with sliding padlock doors, pee trays and removable screens so the keepers can check on them during the flight.
“The keepers tell me what they’re looking for and what’s required so we work as a team to see what’s best for the animal,” Mr Clark says.
The crates are 190cm long, 146cm high and 127cm wide – roughly 6ft by 5ft by 4ft.
“Although they look small,” Mr Clark says, “there’s actually quite a bit of room for them inside, it’s not tight.
“I think they’ll be fine. I’m sure they’ll have a safe journey.”
A low-loader transporter has been hired to transfer the pandas from the zoo to Edinburgh Airport.
It is not your typical delivery.
Mr McGarry says it was an interesting conversation trying to source a lorry to put two giant pandas in.
The transporter will leave Edinburgh Zoo early on Monday morning.
The exact time was kept secret to reduce the chance of disruption from crowds of well-wishers or protest groups.
There are many who think the zoo should never have taken the pandas and are glad they will no longer be living in captivity in Scotland.
Bob Elliot, of animal welfare charity One Kind, says: “You can imagine them in the forests of China where they should be but not in a zoo in Edinburgh.
“Zoo collections are so old school now that their time has come and we really need to be looking beyond zoos and how we actually conserve animals in the wild.”
The flight to Sichuan will be on a specially chartered China Southern plane.
It is a typical passenger plane with most of the seats removed.
The panda crates will be loaded in by fork lift at stand 12 by Edinburgh Airport’s terminal building.
A RZSS keeper and vet, a Chinese keeper and airline official will have the only four passenger seats behind the pilot and co-pilot.
The pandas will have health checks, food and water during the flight but the humans on board will have to heat up their own meals in the on-board microwave because there will be no cabin crew.
Mr McGarry says: ”Half way between Edinburgh and China there’ll be a handover that none of us will see on the plane.”
RZSS keeper Michael Livingstone will give the pandas crate keys to the Chinese keeper and the pandas then become the responsibility of the Chinese.
Mr Livingstone says the pandas are usually a bit lazy and like a lie-in in the morning so he has been gradually bringing forward their wake-up time to get them used to earlier starts.
He says he does not envisage any problems getting them into their crates which will be wheeled to the van, driven down the Zoo Hill to be lifted, one after the other, onto the transporter.
After customs and other formal checks at the airport, Mr Livingstone says: “They’ll be put on the plane, secured in place with the crate wheels removed.
”We’ll be able to feed them on the plane with fresh cut bamboo and we’ll be able to check up on them.”
RZSS vet Stephanie Mota will be on board too.
She says: ”During the flight I’m not expecting to have major challenges.”
“Yang Guang and Tian Tian are healthy so my plan is to feed them plenty of bamboo throughout the flight.
“I will monitor them very closely of course and they will also have one of their favourite keepers with them so they should be happy.”
Ms Mota will check their breathing, appetite and faecal waste all without touching them because they are dangerous animals.
“If we need to do something with a giant panda normally it requires general anaesthesia which we cannot do during the flight,” she says.
“They are trained but they will probably not be at their best.
“It’s not the same environment so we are expecting that they will not react as normal.”
The 12 to13 hour flight takes the pandas to Chengdu in Sichuan province where Yang Guang and Tian Tian will be placed in quarantine again before being transferred to another panda centre.
RZSS staff are planning to visit the two giant pandas there next year to check in on them.
”It’s bizarre, I feel strange.” Mr McGarry says.
“I’ve always known they were leaving and we try not to get attached, but we have to care for them so we are emotionally attached.
“It’s a difficult day.
“I’m excited because I will go back for a follow up next year to make sure they’re ok.
“I’m sure they will be. They’re China’s national treasure.”
Source : BBC