First public appearance of Chinese pandas at Scottish zoo

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Hundreds of animal lovers flocked to Edinburgh Zoo on Friday to get the first glimpse of two giant pandas which arrived from China earlier this month.

Up to 600 people were expected to flood through the gates of the zoo in the Scottish capital as Yang Guang (Sunshine) and Tian Tian (Sweetie) went on display for the first time.

Groups of around 25 filed past the outdoor enclosure housing the eight-year-old pandas, the first of the endangered bears to live in Britain for 17 years.

"It was absolutely fantastic. I'm ecstatic," said Denise Stronach, 46, who was the first to see the pandas.

"As soon as I knew the pandas were coming to Scotland, I kept coming into the zoo every time I was through in Edinburgh, asking: are they here yet?

"I want them to have a wee baby and I want to be first to see that as well."

They arrived on December 4 but were given a few days to recover from jet lag and get used to their new surroundings away from public view.

The zoo said hundreds of people had pre-booked to see the bears' first appearance. Pre-booked visitor numbers for this weekend are up by about 80 percent on usual expectations for a pre-Christmas winter weekend, the zoo said.

Visitors took photos of the bears and were given a short talk by a zoo guide, with a "panda patrol" of 14 trained helpers on hand to deal with the influx.

Each panda has indoor living quarters and a large outdoor enclosure, with plants, trees, a pond and somewhere for them to shelter from the sun.

It is hoped the bears will take advantage of a specially built "tunnel of love" between their separate enclosures and breed new cubs that will help preserve the endangered species.

Zoo chief executive Hugh Roberts said it was wonderful to see the visitors' initial reaction.

"We've been working for this moment for so, so long," he said.

"When you get the public coming in today, it's a moment that says it all because the pandas are here for everybody in the UK and everybody in Scotland."

The bears arrived in Scotland to great fanfare, with a bagpipe band in kilts and flag-waving well-wishers dressed as pandas.

The are spending 10 years on loan in Edinburgh under a deal agreed after five years of high-level political and diplomatic negotiations.

© 2011 AFP

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