A DOUBLE financial whammy caused by Brexit and the Covid crisis could put conservation projects like saving the Scottish wildcat in jeopardy – and may mean Scotland will have to say goodbye to its giant pandas, Yang Guang and Tian Tian.

The pandemic has already “decimated” the finances of Edinburgh Zoo, the pandas’ current home, and Brexit will “seriously affect” conservation projects, according to CEO David Field.

“I think it is going to put them back decades,” he told the Sunday National.

He said zoos would no longer be able to move animals easily across Europe as part of conservation programmes and access to EU funds would be cut off.

“We have one of the leading conservation genetics laboratories here and suddenly access to funds and some of the best researchers have gone – it’s heartbreaking,” said Field.

The funding problem is compounded by the effects of the pandemic which has forced the zoo, a charity, to take on a £5 million loan which it will have to start paying back later this year. A projected loss of £5m has been reduced through redundancies and other cost-cutting measures but is still standing at £2m.

The pandas are on a $1m loan from China but payments deferred because of the coronavirus will also begin again later this year.

Although the Scottish public have been “utterly incredible” in their support of the zoo, Field is worried that further hard decisions may have to be made if the financial situation worsens.

“The crisis is yet to come,” he said. “It may be that some of our incredibly important conservation projects like the reintroduction of the Scottish wildcat may have to be deferred, postponed or even stopped.

"It gets to that point where we have to think about what we have got to stop so we can feed the animals. We have had moments like that and I see another one coming round the corner very, very shortly.”

The 10-year panda contract finishes at the end of 2021 and while there is provision for it to be extended, the zoo’s financial predicament may rule that out.

“It means decisions around the pandas may be forced upon us,” said Field. “Keeping the pandas is an expensive business, even just for their daily care, so it does very much figure in our assessments. At this point it is too early to say one way or the other but there is a big looming debt crisis coming round the corner.”

However there is still a chance Tian Tian could become pregnant before the contract runs out.

Previous breeding attempts have failed but Field said the pandas had settled well into their new enclosure and over the last 10 years much had been learned about their reproductive behaviour which could be put to good use.

“They are brilliantly settled and the relationship that has been built up with the keeper team is tremendous,” he said. “Many people think they are incredible not just as a species but as individuals – they have become Scotland’s pandas.”

As Yang Guang had testicular cancer a few years ago, any pregnancy would have to be through artificial insemination.

“We are some way off before making any decision but if all the stars were aligned then it certainly would be a number for the agenda,” said Field. “There are a lot of factors to come together and the biggest is to ensure her health and welfare are paramount.”

Field said a “tremendous amount” of research had been conducted into why the pandas have not yet bred which has been passed on to breeding programmes around the world.

“Work has been going on globally but we have certainly been leading on this,” he said. “It has been very exciting from the scientific discovery point of view and the Chinese have certainly recognised that.”

However he added that the pandas’ stay in Scotland was not all about science as they had attracted many visitors to the zoo over the years and had played a major part in connecting people to nature.

“It’s not all about the head – some of it is about the heart,” said Field. “I truly believe these pandas have helped turn people back onto nature. As a society we have been turning our back on wildlife and the whole pandemic is testament to the way we have abused nature so there is a really powerful way in which zoos can help connect people back to nature in an accessible and inclusive way.”

Field said that during the Covid crisis the public had “fallen in love with the zoo again” as it was one of the few places they could visit during the restrictions.

“This is a place where families can come together, socially distanced of course,” he pointed out.

While the pandas have been a big draw, he said people were now coming to see the whole range of animals at both Edinburgh Zoo and its wee sister, the Highland Wildlife Park.

“We need them to come in to see the pandas or the tigers but they leave being as excited about the pine hoverfly or the Scottish wildcat and what they can do in their life to repair nature. That is the driving mission and the level of support we get from that is just incredible,” he said.

Field conceded that there are bad zoos but said he would be the first to close them down.

“Places like Edinburgh Zoo are incredible and are making a difference in the world,” he said. “International conservation authorities have recognised the role of responsible zoos in saving species and we have a massive role to play. Our ability to change people’s view of nature is immense.

“There will always be a small but vocal minority who are ethically opposed to keeping animals in zoos and I understand, but I want to say to them that we are in this extinction crisis together and a good zoo provides good welfare, good mission and good conservation. We can make a difference so let’s work together.”