As Edinburgh Zoo welcomes two giant pandas from China, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tells Channel 4 News they are a “very generous gift” despite the £600,000 annual price tag.
The pandas flew into Edinburgh on a specially-chartered flight from China.
The eight-year-olds have been taken to their new home at the city’s zoo where they will stay for at least 10 years. They are the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years.
Edinburgh Zoo, which is run by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, will pay the Chinese authorities £600,000 a year for the pandas. On top of that will be a cost of £70,000 a year for bamboo.
They will have two weeks to settle in to their new enclosure before going on display to the public.
Zoo chiefs have described it as a “historic occasion” for the visitor attraction and the UK as a whole.
Tian Tian, meaning “sweetie”, and Yang Guang, meaning “sunlight”, were born in 2003 and lived at the Ya’an reserve in Chengdu, China.
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.
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The Scottish government has said the loan of the pandas symbolises a “growing friendship” between Scotland and China.
First Minister Alex Salmond, who is currently in China, will thank the Chinese vice premier, Li Keqiang, in a meeting in Beijing tomorrow.
His Deputy Nicola Sturgeon told Channel 4 News she is “very optimistic” about the extra visitor numbers the pandas will attract in order to pay for the loan.
She described them as a “very generous and welcome gift” from the people of China to Scotland.
Mr 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.
However animal welfare campaigners have criticised the pandas’ move to Scotland, suggesting it was not a credible way to go about saving the species.
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.”
Chris Draper, of the Born Free Foundation, said the panda deal was a “short-sighted and retrograde step”.