The two giant Chinese pandas, new arrivals at Scotland's Edinburgh Zoo, were officially presented to about 600 visitors as symbols of a joint effort by Britain and China to save the species from extinction.
After five years of negotiations between the two governments, the animals arrived in Edinburgh two weeks ago on a chartered flight and were greeted with all the fanfare of Hollywood movie stars by news photographers and video crews, state authorities, a military bagpipe band and jubilant crowds.
They'll be nurtured and pampered in a luxurious home, and given all their favorite foods. Their behavior will be closely monitored.
Yang Guang and Tian Tian –- or Sunshine (the male) and Sweetie (the female) -– are on a 10-year lease from the Chinese government in hopes they will breed in their specially adapted environment and increase the endangered species of Ailuropoda melanoleuca, of which only about 2,000 survive. Chinese panda habitats are shrinking under pressure from building and natural disasters. The Scottish pandas' former home in Sichuan province was ravaged by an earthquake in 2008.
The amiable, shambling bears are also diplomats. Hugh Roberts, the zoo's chief executive, last month announced their arrival as "a highly visible statement of the growing momentum to improve international relations between the U.K. and China."
Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to Britain, added, "We expect pandas to bring China and Britain even closer together." The animals are, he said, "an excellent window into grasping China's commitment to peaceful development, desire for cooperation and quest for harmony with the world."
The pandas settled quickly into their new habitat, said Jane Butler, a member of the zoo's public relations team. "They've come out in their separate areas, and people are getting a good view of them. For the first four weeks, they'll have their own Chinese minders, but they're very much at home," she said.
Last week, zoo staff predicted they would adapt to their new environment. "They're used to a lot of rain, they do like the cold very much and they do like the snow, so Scotland really is the perfect place for them," Alison Maclean, the team leader for pandas and carnivores, said as she watched Yang Guang amble and munch vegetation in his new home.
The pandas' 10-year stay is costing the zoo about $1 million a year in grants to Chinese conservation and breeding programs, and about $100,000 for their carefully prepared diet of bamboo, carrots and panda cakes of soy, rice and corn, the Financial Times reported.
The zoo hopes to offset costs and cash in on Sweetie and Sunshine with an increase in regular visitors and expensive corporate packages of exclusive panda viewings. About 10,000 advance tickets have been sold to panda viewers, and a Panda Patrol of 14 guides is on hand for running commentaries.
But all the panda hype, including soft toys, souvenirs and even a new black-and-white panda tartan, has also sparked cynicism.
Some animal-welfare activists and researchers see the venture as purely commercial. They are "a big, cuddly waste of money," wrote Lijia Zhang, a Chinese social commentator, in the Guardian. Their breeding, if successful, will produce "un-authentic pandas" with a low sex drive, she said.
"The long-term solution is to guarantee pandas' natural habitat. ... It's worth pointing out that railways and main roads are still being built too close to conservancy areas, or sometimes even through them."
Harsher critics include David Thomas, a commentator in the Independent: "Pandas are useless, antisocial, frankly rather boring animals. Their rise to global triumph, as a symbol of all things furry, is a telling commentary on our obsession with appearance over substance.
"All through the brutally repressive years of the Cultural Revolution, Mao was lobbing pandas at Western zoos," he noted.
"The shark would make a much better symbol for the Chinese government than the panda."
-- Janet Stobart
Photo: A woman photographs Tian Tian on Friday at the Edinburgh Zoo. Credit: David Moir / Reuters