These are not just a couple of cuddly looking bears: Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, and other dignitaries are giving them a red-carpet greeting Monday at the airport after their long flight from China.
The two giant pandas, Er Shun and Da Mao, left Sunday from the Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, China. They arrive at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport Monday morning after a nearly 24-hour journey.
Securing these rare pandas is a coup for the Harper government, which had been criticized early in its tenure for being slow to develop relations with China – there hasn’t been a panda visit in nearly 25 years.
Mrs. Harper, who met Er Shun, the five-year-old female panda, when she and her husband visited China last year, tweeted enthusiastically Sunday that she was “looking forward to welcoming two special visitors tomorrow. The kids and families of Toronto and Calgary will love Er Shun and Da Mao!”
Er Shun and her four-year-old male partner are on loan to Canada for 10 years and their time will be split between the Toronto and Calgary zoos.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and the Chinese ambassador to Canada, Zhang Junsai, will also be at the airport to greet the bears.
“I would attach great significance to the fact that China would place in Canada’s care the pandas that are coming,” said Peter Harder, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs and now president of the Canada China Business Council. “It’s a signal of their desire to have economic as well as cultural and people-to-people relationships, and to that extent, I think it’s a significant development.”
Last year, Mr. Harper was able to conclude his second visit to China by announcing the panda loan and noting that the relationship between Canada and China had moved to a “totally new level.”
Trade with China has doubled in the past seven to eight years, Mr. Harder said. He cited the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s first visit to China in October as a sign of the growing warmth of the relationship.
“We’ve got cultural diplomacy under way, we’ve got academic diplomacy, we’ve got business diplomacy and we’ve got political diplomacy,” said Mr. Harder. “All these aspects of the relationship are important.”
So is the relationship between the bears. There is a hope the two will procreate – pandas are notoriously ambivalent about mating and they are an endangered species – while in Canada.
The bears will arrive in a specially modified FedEx Express Canada MD11 aircraft, branded with a picture of a panda. Customized enclosures were built to accommodate them on the airplane that will also stock 50 kilograms of apples and 200 kilograms of bamboo. A veterinarian and two other attendants will be with the pandas during the flight.
They will be put in quarantine immediately. The Toronto Zoo, which has built a 1,300-square-metre giant panda exhibit, will not say when the bears will be ready to be seen by the public. The exhibit includes a pool, caves and climbing structures.
The arrival of the pandas comes at a critical time for the city-owned facility, which is looking to increase attendance and private donations and become less reliant on municipal funding. The pair could also help the zoo and its management turn the page after more than a year of controversy over what do to with its trio of aging elephants and an unsuccessful privatization push by the mayor.
The pandas are expected to attract an extra 300,000 visitors this year to the zoo’s sprawling grounds on the northeastern edge of Toronto. Zoo officials are hoping that once they get inside the gate and see what else is on offer, they will become regular visitors.
“These are perhaps the cutest creatures on the planet Earth,” said Toronto city councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker who has been a zoo-board member for the past decade. “I think there will be a lot of attention on the pandas, on the zoo and on Toronto.”
With files from The Canadian Press and Mark MacKinnon