2 giant pandas from China land in Scotland

AP News

12/4/2011 10:54:31 AM - AP News

Two giant pandas from China landed Sunday in Scotland, where they will become the first to live in Britain in nearly two decades.

The 8-year-old pair, named Tian Tian and Yang Guang _ or Sweetie and Sunshine _ were welcomed by bagpipe players and a host of dignitaries as they touched down at Edinburgh Airport on a specially chartered Boeing 777 flight called the "Panda Express."

The pandas, from the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, are to stay for 10 years at Edinburgh Zoo, where officials hope they will give birth to cubs. The female, Tian Tian, has had twin cubs in the past, but not with Yang Guang. The male panda has previously fathered cubs as well.

The loan marked the beginning of a U.K.-China research program on the animals, and both sides have described it as a signal of a growing friendship between Scotland and China. China sometimes gives or lends the cuddly looking animals _ considered a Chinese national treasure _ to other countries to boost relations.

"It shows that we can cooperate closely not only on commerce, but on a broad range of environmental and cultural issues as well," said British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Zoo officials have spent the past five years securing the loan of the animals, which are expected to boost Scottish tourism. The loan was announced in January, when Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang visited Britain to sign billions in trade deals.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland will pay more than 600,000 pounds ($935,000) a year to China for the loan of Sweetie and Sunshine, not including the expense of importing bamboo from the Netherlands.

The pair of pandas, which were given an in-flight meal of bamboo, apples and carrots, will have two weeks to settle at the zoo before going on display to the public. They will be kept in two separate enclosures for a few months until they are ready to be introduced to each other.

The zoo also plans to put four hidden "panda cams" in their enclosures and stream the footage online to attract viewers from around the world.

Britain's last giant panda, Ming Ming, lived in the London Zoo until 1994, when she was returned to China.

In 1974, British Prime Minister Edward Heath received two pandas from the Chinese government as a goodwill gift to mark his visit to China. Female Ching-Ching and male Chia-Chia became a much-loved attraction at the London Zoo, but never produced any cubs.

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Sylvia Hui can be reached at: http://twitter.com/sylviahui