For a couple of years, Scotland’s two giant pandas were the biggest celebrities in the land. Now, as they prepare for their final scheduled year in captivity on Scottish soil, before returning to their native China, Tian Tian and Yang Guang are largely forgotten after a decade of failed and increasingly desperate attempts to coax them into producing offspring.
They arrived at Edinburgh zoo in 2011 and made headlines for months as the nation waited for the first giant panda to be born in Scotland. Record numbers of visitors followed, and at one point the then first minister, Alex Salmond, joked that the country had more pandas than Tories.
But the dream has faded and earlier this year the pandas’ keepers attempted artificial insemination for the sixth time on Tian Tian before announcing, yet again, that the procedure had failed. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which owns and runs the zoo, attempted cheeriness in the face of the latest failure.
Charlotte Macdonald, the society’s director of conservation and living collections, said in September: “Tian Tian was artificially inseminated at the end of March, and we now know this was not successful. Giant panda breeding is an incredibly complex, unpredictable process, and we will continue to share our research with our colleagues in China. It is too soon to say what any next steps will be.”
No one at the zoo or the RZSS was available last week to confirm that a seventh attempt at artificial insemination would be made next year. Nor did they respond to questions about the overall cost of the giant pandas’ decade in Scotland.
The zoo, a registered charity, has been paying about £1m a year to China in a leasing arrangement. In September, the pandas moved to a £2.5m enclosure funded by the Scottish government. The wisdom of spending so much public money on a facility that would be in use for little more than a year is also debatable.
According to the charity Animal Concern there are far more serious questions to be answered than about funding. The male panda, Yang Guang, has been diagnosed with testicular cancer and the group wants to know if the persistent and intrusive attempts at producing a baby panda have been a contributory factor.
Animal Concern’s John Robins argued: “The way in which these beautiful animals have been prodded and primped in an increasingly desperate and distasteful way is a disgrace.
“After letting nature take its course failed, the zoo brought in teams of vets and scientists from around the world and then subjected them to what has become an annual artificial insemination session for the sole purpose of producing a circus act.”
When the pandas first came to Edinburgh zoo, the RZSS made much of the fact that the project was all part of an international breeding programme aimed at conservation. The giant panda has finally been taken off the list of endangered species. However, this was largely due to efforts to stop poaching and increased protection of their natural habitats.
“We believe artificial attempts at breeding puts the animals at risk. It is a costly and very intrusive procedure which involves giving these large animals heavy doses of anaesthesia. The only reason for doing this is to create cute cubs to bring in the paying public,” said Robins
In the first two years of their captivity in Edinburgh, attempts were made for the pair to mate naturally during the very brief window when the female is in season. Thereafter, annual attempts using artificial means were made, and an expectant nation duly received regular updates on Tian Tian’s condition. In recent years though, interest in this annual ritual has evaporated.
Animal Concern now intends to write to the Scottish government seeking assurances that the leasing arrangement with China will not be extended and never renewed. “A country which thinks of itself as civilised should not be behaving like this with these magnificent big bears.”
Last week, RZSS said it was too soon to say if the pandas would definitely be returned to China next year. Nor could they say what would happen to their current enclosure.