On Tuesday afternoon, pandas Yang Guang and Tian Tian embarked on a journey back to China, after 12 years on ‘loan’ in Edinburgh Zoo. 

Panda Tian Tian in a concrete room in Edinburgh zoo

The pandas arrived in Edinburgh in December 2011, as a diplomatic ‘gift’ (an outdated concept in itself) to much fanfare, but many, including OneKind, were very concerned for the wellbeing of the pandas. Wild animals do not belong in captivity, and we knew that they would struggle to have their needs met in a captive environment. 

We have consistently raised our welfare concerns for the pandas throughout the 12 years that they have been held in captivity. And we hope never to see pandas again in Scotland. This is why. 

Wild animals don’t belong in enclosures 

Panda in an outdoor concrete enclosure in a zoo

There is no justifiable reason to keep pandas captive in zoos.  

It is generally not possible to meet the needs of wild animals in a captive environment and it cannot be said confining the pandas to enclosures, for the entertainment of humans, is in the best interests of these animals.  

Indeed, Scottish Government documents from 2021 revealed that Tian Tian is unlikely to be exhibited upon her return to China due to her not being ‘not a people-panda'. We are deeply concerned about the welfare state of Tian Tian throughout the 12 years she was put on display for human entertainment. 

The concept of zoos is outdated. Wild animals belong in the wild; they are not objects for our entertainment. 

Claims of conservation are misleading 

Conservation of species is often used by zoos to defend their existence, but this often means preservation, where the animal remains at a zoo for life.  

For example, during her captivity at Edinburgh Zoo, female panda Tian Tian was repeatedly subjected to invasive artificial insemination procedures in a bid for her to produce a panda cub for the zoo. Even if Tian Tian had produced cubs, these individuals would never have returned to the wild, nor strengthened the numbers of the wild population. 

We were greatly concerned for the welfare of Tian Tian during the 8 invasive artifcial procedures she was made to endure. Unlike a human mother who makes a choice to undergo these procedures, Tian Tian had no choice. 

Conservation is most effective when carried out in an animals’ natural territory. Indeed, during the pandas’ time in captivity at Edinburgh Zoo, the conservation status of giant pandas in the wild was upgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’, thanks to work carried out in giant pandas’ natural habitat in China. 

Panda diplomacy is outdated 

The idea of animal diplomacy in 2023 - the exchange of a sentient individual as a diplomatic ‘gift’ or ‘loan’- is quite frankly outdated. Animals are not objects to be traded, but rather individuals with their own characteristics and personalities. 

As the pandas return to China, we hope that 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. 

As of this week, pandas are no longer present in Scotland. For their sake, let’s keep it that way.