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Pandas to travel ‘first-class’ from Scotland to China

Tian Tian, the female panda, at Edinburgh Zoo inside its enclosure
Tian Tian will return to China after attempts to produce a cub were unsuccessful - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Two giant pandas who have lived in the UK for the past 12 years will travel in “first-class accommodation” on their return to China, according to the chief executive of Edinburgh Zoo.

Yang Guang and Tian Tian were loaded onto a lorry in separate crates on Monday as they left the Scottish capital on a specially chartered plane bound for Sichuan, China.

David Field, the chief executive of Edinburgh Zoo, said the animals had learned to sleep and eat in the metal structures where they will be kept for the 13-hour flight.

Describing the crates as “first-class bedroom accommodation”, Mr Field said it was likely that the pandas would sleep for the majority of the journey barring the occasional snacking on the “odd bit of bamboo”.

Asked how the pandas would cope on the plane, Mr Field told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “They are in comfortable, warm, low-level light surroundings and they are just going to sleep for most of the time as we all do in first class.”

Bamboo being loaded onto the cargo plane at Edinburgh Airport as giant pandas Yang Guang and Tian Tian begin their journey back to China
Bamboo being loaded onto the cargo plane at Edinburgh Airport as giant pandas Yang Guang and Tian Tian begin their journey back to China - Jane Barlow/PA

Rab Clark, Edinburgh Zoo’s blacksmith, built the crates with sliding padlock doors, urine trays and removable screens so keepers can monitor the animals during the flight.

Four passengers will board the plane at Edinburgh airport: an Edinburgh Zoo keeper, a Royal Zoological Society of Scotland veterinarian, a Chinese keeper and an official with China Southern Airlines will sit behind the pilot and co-pilot.

Responsibility for the pandas’ welfare will transfer from the UK to China in a handover of keys at the halfway stage of the flight, according to Darren McGarry, from Edinburgh Zoo.

Michael Livingstone, a senior animal keeper at Edinburgh Zoo, will be among those accompanying Yang Guang and Tian Tian on their return to China.

Describing how looking after the pandas had been the “highlight” of his career, Mr Livingstone said the handover marked a “sad and emotional” time for him and his colleagues.

The pandas inside metal crates being loaded onto a cargo plane
The pandas inside metal crates being loaded onto a cargo plane - Jane Barlow/PA

He said: “They’re very different to look after, as a team we have looked after many different species of bear and we were fairly confident we knew what kind of hurdles we might need to cross and jump over for looking after pandas, and when they arrived it was completely different to what we thought.

“They are a very sensitive, very specialised species so we very quickly learned all the different things we needed to do with them or around them.”

Yang Guang and Tian Tian arrived at Edinburgh Zoo in 2011 as part of a 10-year agreement between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the China Wildlife Conservation Association.

Following a two-year extension, the animals will return to China after attempts to produce a cub from Tian Tian were unsuccessful.