Giant Pandas at Edinburgh Zoo

You can imagine the excitement when a male and a female Giant Panda came to Edinburgh Zoo.

Their arrival was a big deal – in a specially chartered nine-hour flight from China. It took five years negotiating with the Chinese government and the China Wildlife Conservation Association to agree the deal. And there was a lot that Edinburgh Zoo had to get right.

The animals’ home was built in two sections, like adjoining rooms in a hotel. Most of the time, the animals want to be on their own, and get argumentative if forced into each other’s territory.

We were living in Edinburgh at the time. So we got a chance to see the pandas. We took photographs, and one features in one of our cards with the animal looking to one side as though thinking romantic thoughts.

If You Want To See The Giant Pandas

Read on and you will see how they are leaving to go back to China at the end of 2023. So if you want to see them at Edinburgh Zoo – now is the time before they are sent back.

The world in 2023 is so very different to when they arrived. World tensions, COVID, and the dawning understanding among many people that we, everyone, cannot afford to indulge in winners and losers any more. We’re beginning to understand that we need to think of ‘everyone’ and ‘us’ as the same.

So perhaps the pandas will go back at the end of 2023, or perhaps something will happen to change that. For all I know, Edinburgh Zoo might be looking forward to the day the animals go back. They are expensive to feed, and who knows what the zoo’s finances are like.


99% of diet of giant pandas is bamboo shoots. And the two animals get through 20 tons (18,000 kgs) of 25 different varieties of bamboo in a year.

The Zoo has to grow it or buy it in. They can’t grow enough to feed two animals, so they buy in extra bamboo all the time. 85% of the animals’ bamboo is bought in, and the other 15% is grown on sites around the Zoo.

Bamboo is a poor source of food, which is why the animals get through so much of it. They also tear up far more than they eat. They rip into the bark to get at the juicy part that interests them, with teeth like giant pickaxes. Forgive the camera shake in the photograph. The EXIF photo tells me I took in in February 2015. And I remember the light was low and I was shooting though glass. With hindsight, I should have bumped up the ISO and suffered the increase in noise. We live and learn.

giant panda showing its front teeth like pickaxes

Panda Babies

The zoo was loaned the pandas for ten years. The hope was that they would have babies who could stay on when the adults returned to China.

Time is running out on that project. Both giant pandas will return to China at the end of 2023 following a two year extension to the agreement.

And so far, no baby pandas despite several pregnancies. Female giant pandas come into heat only once a year, for just a few days. In the wild, female giant pandas are sexually mature at five to six years old. Males mature at six to seven years old. In captivity, giant pandas mature about a year earlier due to better living conditions and bamboo on tap, as it were.

Actually knowing when a female is in heat is a skill that the zoo staff had to learn. It’s important because giant pandas are solitaty animals, and they only want to get together to mate. After impregnation, the female is very touchy and does not want the male around. Even more, she can hold the sperm in her system. She can hold it for up to nine months before allowing it to fertilise her eggs. And if she decides that for whatever reason she doesn’t want to give birth, she has options. She can reabsorb the foetus, or simply not allow the sperm to reach her eggs.

Ailuropoda melanoleuca

The Latin name for the Giant Panda is Ailuropoda melanoleuca.

Ailuropoda comes from the Greek aílouros, meaning cat, and podós meaning foot. Most bears have round pupils. but not the Giant Panda. It has vertical slits, similar to those of cats, hence the Latin name. In China the name of the animal translates as large bear cat. And in Tibetan its name translates as cat bear.

Melanoleuca, the other part of the Latin name, comes from the Greek melano meaning black, and leukos meaning white.

So the giant panda is the large black and white cat bear.

Giant pandas have been around a long time. Based on fossil evidence, giant pandas date back to the Pleistocene era three million years ago.

That’s why they are also sometimes called a living fossil.

Oh, and the big black patches around their eyes? They are thought to act as sunglasses to protect the bears from glare at the altitude they live at in their natural habitat.

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