PLANS are under way for a €6m expansion at Fota Wildlife Park, which could see giant pandas become a top visitor attraction.
The wildlife centre has lodged plans with Cork County Council for an ambitious 28-acre expansion, which will increase its size by 40pc, making it one of the largest parks of its kind in Europe.
If given the go-ahead, the park will introduce a range of exotic animals including Indian rhinos and Asiatic lions at a new Asian sanctuary.
It also hopes to secure two rare giant pandas and will be counting on Cork's twinning with the Chinese city of Shanghai to strengthen its case.
Park spokesman Stephen Ryan said it was an exciting time for the park.
"It's taking us to the next level. The park hasn't changed for 30 years and this will be a complete revamp and will showcase what we're all about, which is conservation. We're more than just a family day out," said Mr Ryan.
"It will enable us to breed more animals that are endangered and put them back into the wild. We're focusing on Asia as it's a part of the world where animals are most endangered."
Mr Ryan said it would be a huge coup for the park to get pandas, as they are extremely rare.
"In the UK alone, there are just two pandas in Edinburgh Zoo," he said.
Among the other animals the park expects to welcome as part of the new development are an Asian wild dog called a dhole, and a type of goat-antelope called a golden takin, which is native to China, as well as Japanese cranes.
It is hoped that the first phase of the project, which will see additions to the park of Sumatran tigers and wharty pigs from the Philippines, will be open to the public by next summer.
It will be 2015 before the entire development, which comprises 17 new buildings, including a viewing building and souvenir shop, is completed.