5th December 2023

Two 19 year old pandas - named Tian Tian and Yang Guang - who have been held captive at Edinburgh Zoo since 2011, are now being shipped back to China after they were “loaned” by the country for breeding purposes. We previously wrote about these plans in January, when the final decision to send the pandas back was heavily reported in the press.

Many news broadcasts are claiming the pair are “travelling home” to China, which gives the illusion these animals will be welcomed by the natural beauty of their wild habitats on their arrival into the country, and ultimately find themselves on the road to a future of freedom. Yet this is so very far from the case.

After being loaded onto the plane on Monday 4th December, Tian Tian and Yang Guang are now on the same gruelling journey they were forced to endure 12 years ago; one which sees them separated and flown over 4,800 miles in metal crates before ending up in the same zoo facility they originated from - the China Wildlife Conservation Association base at Chengdu. The experience will be traumatic and upsetting for the pair, and is one which highlights the utter disregard the zoo industry has for the innocent individuals they hold captive across the world. 

These pandas were transferred to Edinburgh Zoo as part of a captive breeding programme in an attempt to breed cubs from the couple. This “deal” offered the zoo a chance to capitalise on the pair and attract more visitors and therefore increase ticket sales. The marketing spiel so often used by the industry when discussing or promoting these breeding programmes, is that they protect species from extinction and help conservation efforts. However this is a con. Zoos are simply holding animals captive for exhibition to the public, and often archaically refer to the animals held captive there as their “collection” for display.

The reality is that the animals born in these programmes do not get released into the wild - it is a total myth. And this myth costs animals dearly. 

The traumatic process of forced artificial insemination is common in captivity, and in the case of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, they were exposed to this invasive procedure no less than eight times during their incarceration at Edinburgh Zoo. These eight unsuccessful attempts have obviously left the zoo out of pocket, and so now the pandas are seen as obsolete, they are being given up and sent away. 

Before their time in Scotland, the pandas had successfully produced twins in China. The stress of relocation may have even affected their reproductive abilities. This will have been an expensive disappointment to Edinburgh Zoo, who essentially leased the pandas for 10 years, extending to 12 in 2021 for a fee of around £1,000,000, with a reported total expenditure of up to £20 million. 

Treating these majestic pandas as mere commodities for breeding is unacceptable, yet it happens to thousands of animals every year in the name of profit and commercial gain. The babies these two individuals may have parented had breeding been successful, would have been traded and moved around at the whim of the Chinese authorities they were “owned” by; never to see freedom. Devastatingly, they would have been destined to suffer the same artificial enclosures their parents endure for their entire lives.

A vet from Edinburgh Zoo commented in the press on the risks of Yuan Guang and Tian Tian’s journey to China, stating:

"They are trained but they will probably not be at their best. It's not the same environment so we are expecting that they will not react as normal."

It is clear that even zoo staff are aware of how stressful the journey will be on the pandas, so it is devastating that such a known traumatic journey will not even result in them seeing relative freedom and relocated to an in-situ conservation sanctuary, but instead to another zoo facility, where they will continue to be used in the same way they have been all of their lives.   

These remarkable animals should be in the forests of China, roaming free and choosing to live their lives however they see fit. Yet instead of protecting their natural habitats, humanity funnels obscene amounts of money into zoos; and the zoo industry in turn spends millions of pounds on tiny cages to hold millions of suffering individuals captive while their wild forests continue to be destroyed, and their species population numbers continue to plummet. 

We must shift away from the disgracefully ineffective and unethical practice of locking animals away for entertainment, and look beyond zoos to ensure funds are being utilised in the right ways, and going towards truly protecting animals via in-situ conservation efforts.

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