Edinburgh Zoo has confirmed that the 10-year lease of a pair of giant pandas, Sunshine and Sweetie, will be extended for another two years after the end of the lease.
Originally, the pandas would have had to be returned to China after their 10-year lease, but now they can continue to live in Edinburgh for another two years.
Edinburgh pays an annual fee of 750,000 pounds (equivalent to 6.75 million yuan) to China, but the fee will be halved for the two years.
Edinburgh Zoo has also confirmed that it will not attempt to breed pandas during these two years.
A total of eight attempts at artificial insemination have been made by the Edinburgh Civil Service’s panda team in the past 10 years, all of which have ended in failure, most recently in early 2021.
BBC Scotland’s Steven Broxton looks back at the 10-year journey of Sunshine and Sweetie, a “couple” who have travelled to the UK to raise a child.
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Rock star welcome
Giant panda plane
Ten years ago (December 4, 2011), Sunshine and Sweetie received a rock-star welcome when they arrived at Edinburgh Zoo on a special flight to settle in.
Prior to Sunshine and Sweetie’s arrival in Edinburgh, the British zoo had not seen a giant panda sighting for 17 years.
One can only imagine the interest and enthusiasm of the British public.
In 1994, Mingming, the last giant panda at London Zoo, was returned to China ahead of schedule after the two pandas “fought” while attempting to mate with a male baby panda leased from Berlin, Germany.
Edinburgh Zoo welcomes Sunshine and Sweetie.
After five years of negotiations and talks with China to lease pandas to the UK, Edinburgh Zoo finally agreed to lease a pair of pandas for £750,000 a year (a fee that will be used for conservation and research of pandas in China).
Furthermore, if the pandas give birth, the giant panda cubs will also be returned to China after the age of 2.
A variety of panda souvenirs have been created.
The pair of pandas became deserved stars immediately after settling at Edinburgh Zoo. The bamboo they love to eat has been specially shipped from the Netherlands. The zoo also spent a lot of money to create a comfortable new home for them.
The two pandas have settled into their respective homes at Edinburgh Zoo and seem to be settling in well. The zoo decided that they might breed once the opportunity was right.
Both Sunshine and Sweetie were 8 years old at the time, in their young adulthood, and both pandas had previously been parents separately.
Female pandas have an estrus period once a year and only have a 36-hour window in which to breed.
If they were in the wild, they could mate with multiple partners, but the Edinburgh Zoo team wanted to see if Sunshine herself could mate successfully with Sweetie.
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“The time is right”
In early April 2012, the opportunity presented itself.
Sweetie (the female) releases a signal to Sunshine (the male) by calling. And Sunshine’s section is also getting well, and the block has grown a lot. Sunshine even stood upside down with both paws and left his scent everywhere.
A Chinese panda expert decided that the time was right and the staff opened the door to the “love tunnel” between the two pandas’ cages.
The first meeting between the two pandas was not without its risks, as sometimes the pandas attack each other. But happily, they didn’t.
They played and wrestled together, with various grunts, and Sweetie was a bit restless.
The staff separated them for a while, and then let them be together again.
They tried to mate several times, but Sweetie’s tail got in the middle and the keeper tried to move it away with a long pole, but in the end, Sweetie and Sunshine failed to mate and had to wait for the next year.
Daily life of a “giant panda nanny” in Sichuan
Hard work in vain
In the spring of 2013, the Edinburgh giant panda team used a two-pronged approach: they offered Sunshine and Sweetie the opportunity to mate naturally, while also resorting to artificial insemination.
The Edinburgh team collected Sunshine’s sperm, along with sperm that had been frozen during the baby German panda’s lifetime.
This time, although Sweetie and Sunshine were again unsuccessful in mating naturally, the artificial insemination was successful. Unfortunately, Sweetie’s pregnancy did not reach full term.
Sunshine has been a dad before
In 2014, Sweetie became pregnant again, however, with the same results as last time.
In 2015, zookeepers believe Sugar lost the fetus again late in her pregnancy and was “absorbed” by her body.
Thus, there have been a total of eight artificial conceptions, the most recent of which took place earlier this year.
Some animal rights advocates have criticized the practice of artificial insemination of pandas in Edinburgh, saying that it is all about making money and not about the pandas’ well-being. They also say that pandas are not breeding machines and should not be subjected to constant artificial insemination to please humans.
The pandas at Edinburgh Zoo attract many visitors.
Edinburgh Zoo, a charity that had been losing money before the arrival of Sugar and Sunshine, turned a profit within 2 years of the Chinese pandas settling at the zoo, but visitor numbers began to fall in the following years.
The new crown epidemic has caused huge shocks and problems for the zoo. 2018 also saw Sunshine undergo a bilateral orchiectomy due to a tumor, and 18-year-old Sweetie at the end of her fertile years.
But Field, chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), expressed particular delight at the news that the pair of pandas had extended their lease by two years.
He said, “We also hope that international travel restrictions will be relaxed for the next 2 years. It means our giant panda keepers will be able to escort Sunshine and Sweetie back to China and help them get settled in their new home. This would be ideal as the two pandas have developed a strong bond with our panda team”.