Pandas Yang Guan and Tian Tian are set to begin their journey back to China, having spent 12 years on ‘loan’ in Edinburgh Zoo. However, Edinburgh-based animal welfare charity OneKind has been critical of the keeping of pandas at the Zoo. It hopes that people will reflect upon changing attitudes towards the captivity of wild animals for entertainment.
Yang Guan and Tian Tian: going back to China
As Sky News reported:
Yang Guang and Tian Tian – the UK’s only giant pandas – are leaving for China [on Monday 4 December] after spending 12 years in Scotland.
For more than a decade the large, furry animals have been the star attraction of Edinburgh Zoo since arriving in 2011.
However, they are now returning under the terms of a 10-year agreement between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, which was extended by two years due to the COVID pandemic.
China has been using so-called “panda diplomacy” since 1972, when the first animals were sent to the US in 1972 as a gift, following then-president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the Communist nation.
However, OneKind highlights its concerns with the continuous artificial insemination procedures performed on Tian Tian, the outdated notion of animals as diplomatic ‘gifts’, and the misleading claims of conservation.
Pandas in captivity
Its campaigner and press officer Eve Massie Bishop said:
OneKind has never supported the keeping of pandas at Edinburgh Zoo and we have voiced our concerns continuously throughout the past 12 years.
There is no good reason to keep pandas captive in zoos. It is generally not possible to meet the needs of wild animals in a captive environment. It also cannot be said confining the pandas to enclosures, simply for people to look at them, is in the best interests of these animals.
Conservation of species is used to defend the existence of zoos, but this often means ‘preservation’ where the animal remains at a zoo for life. Conservation of species is most likely to succeed when carried out in the animals’ native habitat.
Yang Guang and Tian Tian arrived in Edinburgh in December 2011 as part of a 10-year arrangement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association.
But it was soon clear the two were not eager to breed. Officials at the zoo failed in an attempt to artificially inseminate Tian Tian in 2013. Yang Guang was later castrated after being treated for testicular cancer. Giant pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, with bears losing interest in mating the natural way – or simply not knowing how.
On the artificial insemination procedures on female panda Tian Tian, Eve commented:
During her captivity at Edinburgh Zoo, female panda Tian Tian was also repeatedly subjected to invasive artificial insemination procedures in a bid for her to produce a panda cub for the zoo. Unlike a human mother who makes a choice to undergo these procedures, Tian Tian had no choice.
Even if Tian Tian had produced cubs, these individuals would never have returned to the wild, nor strengthened the numbers of the wild population.
Political diplomacy and entertainment at the expense of animal rights
On the return of the pandas to China, Eve stated:
We hope that as the pandas embark on their journey back to China, the Scottish public will reflect upon changing attitudes towards zoos and the exploitation of animals for entertainment in the past 12 years since the pandas arrived in Edinburgh.
The idea of animal diplomacy in 2023 – the exchange of a sentient individual as a diplomatic ‘gift’ – is quite frankly outdated. So too is the belief that it is justifiable to keep wild animals in an enclosure solely for entertainment purposes. Wild animals belong in the wild.
The US has also returned some of its loaned pandas to China. All three giant pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington – Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who arrived in 2000, and their three-year-old cub Xiao Qi Ji (“Little Miracle” in English) – flew back on a cargo plane to China in November. The last remaining pandas currently in the US, at a zoo in the southern city of Atlanta, are due to return to China by late 2024.
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse
Featured image via Edinburgh Zoo – YouTube