China’s cuddliest diplomats: As the UK’s only giant pandas leave Edinburgh Zoo after 12 years, how Beijing’s ‘panda diplomacy’ saw a VERY excited Ted Heath meet two in 1974
- Chia Chia and Ching Ching came to Britain in 1974 in deal brokered by Heath
- Proved to be the star attraction at London Zoo, until Ching Ching’s death in 1985
When they arrived in September 1974, Chia Chia and Ching Ching were just the latest example of so-called Panda Diplomacy.
Having been flown in to Heathrow after a deal struck by Conservative PM Edward Heath with his autocratic counterpart Chairman Mao, the pandas were given a home at London Zoo.
A beaming Mr Heath, now out of office, was among the first to pay the pair a visit.
When Chia Chia left the UK in 1988 – three years after the death of his mate – it was fitting that Mr Heath, who had been out of office for 14 years by then, returned to say goodbye.
Sadly however, there has been no similar farewell this month from Rishi Sunak to Yang Guang and Tian Tian, who today are heading back to China after spending 12 years at Edinburgh Zoo.
Former Prime Minister Edward Heath says goodbye to Chia Chia the panda, who spent 14 years at London Zoo. He returned to China in 1988, three years after the death of his mate, Ching Ching
When they arrived in September 1974, Chia Chia and Ching Ching were just the latest example of so-called Panda Diplomacy. Above: The pandas making their first public appearance
READ MORE: Eats shoots and leaves…UK’s only Giant Pandas Yang Guang and Tian Tian make the long journey back home to China after 12 years of failing to mate in Scotland
The deal to bring Chia Chia and Ching Ching to Britain was struck by Mr Heath during his visit to China in May 1973.
By the time they arrived in September the following year, Mr Heath had been turfed out of Downing Street at the General Election.
There were high hopes that Ching-Ching – who was two – and 22-month-old Chia Chia would one day breed when they first entered their enclosures at the zoo in Regent’s Park.
British Ambassador Edward Youde had given them a gilded send-off aboard a specially equipped British Airways 707 cargo jet, which was loaded with piles of bamboo shoots to nourish them on their journey.
They were given panda-sized oxygen masks, ice blocks to sit on if it got too hot and extra air conditioning.
When Ching Ching and Chia Chia made their first public appearance a few days after their arrival, hundreds of Londoners came to visit.
The pair put on a typically cute display, climbing on top of each other to the delight of those watching.
Yang Guang and Tian Tian are heading back to China after spending 12 years at Edinburgh Zoo. Above: Yang Guang during one of his final appearances in Edinburgh
The deal to bring Chia Chia and Ching Ching to Britain was struck by Mr Heath during his visit to China in May 1973. By the time they arrived in September the following year, Mr Heath had been turfed out of Downing Street at the General Election. Above: Mr Heath greets Ching Ching during a visit shortly after the pandas’ arrival
Among them was Mr Heath, now leader of the opposition. He was pictured beaming as Ching Ching stood on her hind legs to greet him.
He said at the time: ‘They are very attractive creatures, they are a gift from one people to another to show a happy relationship.’
Heath was so besotted with the pandas that he celebrated his 70th birthday party at London Zoo in 1986, after the death of Ching Ching.
She passed away from peritonitis after failing to produce any cubs with her long-time mate.
The nation had watched with baited breath five years earlier when she fell seriously ill with a stomach upset.
On that occasion, she thankfully recovered after four months.
In 1981, she had to cope with Chia Chia’s absence for several weeks when he was flown to the US in the hope that he might mate with Ling-Ling, the resident panda at Washington’s National Zoo
Although that attempt failed, his sperm was a successfully used to impregnate Shao-Shao the panda at Madriz Zoo.
She gave birth to twins, though one of them died soon after being born in 1982.
When Chia Chia left permanently for a zoo in Mexico in 1988, Mr Heath again paid a visit, this time to say farewell. He told the Mail that he was ‘very sad’ to see him go.
With their star attraction now gone, London Zoo immediately began negotiations with China and other zoos for a new pair of pandas.
Mr Heath played a key role in securing a deal which saw Ming Ming arrive from China in 1991. He was paired with Bao Bao, who had come form Berlin Zoo.
However, the pair hated each other and spent their time fighting rather than getting cosy together. They were sent home in 1994.
Neither they nor Ching Ching and Chia Chia were the first pandas to come to London Zoo.
In 1958, the attraction welcomed Chi Chi, who was privately owned. Although her visit was only meant to be for a few weeks, she proved so popular that officials decided to buy her.
In 1958, Chi-Chi made two escapes from her enclosure. On the second bid for freedom, she clawed a woman’s leg before she was recaptured.
However, she did save the Zoological Society from a crippling financial loss in 1958.
By the time she died in 1972, she had been seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors. Her stuffed remains now lie at the Natural History Museum.
Ching Ching the Panda at London Zoo. She and Chia Chia proved hugely popular with visitors
Ching Ching munches on bamboo. Sadly she passed away in 1985 after a bout of peritonitis
Despite repeated efforts to get them to mate, Chia Chia and Ching Ching never produced a cub
She was also the inspiration for the logo of the World Wildlife Fund, which was designed by Sir Peter Scott.
Her stay followed those of three giant pandas who came to England in 1938.
The trio, including baby Ming, had been captured from their natural home and shipped to Britain.
Ming proved so popular that her image was reproduced and used on London Underground posters, as well as in postcards and even cartoons.
Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, was among thousands who came to visit.
Her popularity sparked the production of panda toys, dolls, and even sweets.
Whilst Ming’s companions – Sung and Tang – died in 1939 and 1940, she lived on until 1944.
Tragically, she had been greatly affected by the Nazi bombing campaign on London, with her hair falling out due to the stress.
The Daily Mail’s obituary read: ‘Her passing will be mourned by hundreds of thousands of children all over the country, in whose hearts she held a very special place.
‘Parents adored her, too, because Ming made their children happy.’
Panda Diplomacy was not restricted to British shores. Between 1958 and 1982, China gave 23 pandas to nine different countries.
In 1958, the attraction welcomed Chi Chi, who was privately owned. Although her visit was only meant to be for a few weeks, she proved so popular that officials decided to buy her
London Zoo’s chief vet Oliver Graham-Jones gives Chi-Chi a check-up in 1958
Chi Chi gives a wave to the camera as she has her picture taken in 1968. She died in 1972
Ming the panda was one of three who were brought to London Zoo in 1938. Ming proved so popular that her image was reproduced and used on London Underground posters, as well as in postcards and even cartoons. Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, was among thousands who came to visit. Above: The young princess and her sister during their visit
Mr Heath played a key role in securing a deal which saw Ming Ming arrive from China in 1991. He was paired with Bao Bao, who had come form Berlin Zoo. Above: Mr Heath visiting Ming Ming
Also among them were Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, who were given by Chairman Mao to US President Richard Nixon in 1972.
Yang Guang and Tian Tian came to Edinburgh Zoo in 2011 as part of a 10-year agreement. This was then extended by two years.
It was long hoped that the pair would produce a cub, but despite repeated attempts, they remained without offspring.
Visitors said their goodbyes to the bears on Thursday, November 30, with the zoo then beginning preparations for them to return to the China Wildlife Conservation Association base at Chengdu
To take the pandas to their new home, Edinburgh Zoo’s blacksmith Rab Clark has constructed two bespoke metal crates complete with sliding padlock doors, pee trays and removable screens so the keepers can check on them during the flight to Sichuan.
The crates are 190cm long, 146cm high and 127cm wide, which the bears have been getting used to in the last few weeks.
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