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Giant panda Er Shun is pictured at the zoo in Chongqing in 2012. Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced two giant pandas, Er Shun and Ji Li, will spend 10 years in two Canadian zoos. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Giant panda Er Shun is pictured at the zoo in Chongqing in 2012. Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced two giant pandas, Er Shun and Ji Li, will spend 10 years in two Canadian zoos. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Does the pandas’ visit represent a diplomatic bear hug between Beijing and Ottawa? Add to ...

Fifty kilograms of apples, 200 kilograms of bamboo, three human handlers and two adorable but lazy bears that are supposed to symbolize a maturing friendship between Canada and the People’s Republic of China.

That’s the cargo aboard the “Panda Express,” a specially modified FedEx plane that will land at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on March 25 at the end of an almost 24-hour journey from the Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, China. It’s also the end of a four-decade effort to procure the spotted bears that began with Pierre Trudeau’s initial visit to China in 1973.

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The arrival of Da Mao and Er Shun is a symbolic moment that Prime Minister Stephen Harper – who is among the many politicians expected to greet the pandas once they clear immigration – will hail as proof that his own strategy of re-engaging with China’s Communist Party leadership is paying off following a period of frosty indifference.

“It is a tremendous honour for Canada to be entrusted with [the pandas],” Julie Vaux, a press secretary for the Prime Minister’s Office, said in an e-mail. “The pandas, Er Shun and Ji Li, are two of China’s national treasures. They will be an enduring reminder of the deep friendship and goodwill that exists between our countries.”

Goodwill may exist, but communication between Beijing and Ottawa apparently still needs work. Ji Li, in fact, actually isn’t coming to Canada. Handlers discovered the four-year-old bear, initially thought to be a male, is actually a female. (Because pandas are an endangered species, they are generally sent abroad in male-female pairs in the hope they will procreate.) Da Mao, who everyone is sure is male, has been selected as the new partner for Er Shun.

The giant pandas, which represent a centuries-old gesture of Chinese amity toward a foreign country, will spend 10 years in Canada, split between the Toronto and Calgary zoos.

A share of the ticket proceeds will be used to pay $1-million a year to China’s world-leading research base in Chengdu and a smaller panda centre in the nearby city of Chongqing. The contract also includes a provision that two Chinese keepers help tend to the bears for their first two years in Canada, “just so there is a Chinese presence with panda expertise,” according to the lead Canadian organizer at the Toronto Zoo.

It’s the payback for lengthy Canadian wooing, an effort that once included gifting chairman Mao Zedong with a quartet of beavers in an unsuccessful effort to provoke a reciprocal offer of pandas. But getting the bears to Canada will be almost as complex as the decades of negotiations.

Er Shun, or as her name translates, “Double Smoothness,” who has lived all her five years in Chongqing, will be loaded onto a special truck and driven to Chengdu on March 23. A day later, she and the four-year-old male, Da Mao, or “Big Mao,” will be placed in specially designed steel-and-plexiglass enclosures and loaded onto a special FedEx plane – painted like a panda for the occasion – for their flight to Canada.

The enclosures are already in the panda habitats so that the two bears can get comfortable with the boxes before they travel.

“It’s a long journey, but it’s a comfortable journey because of the custom-built enclosures that the pandas travel in,” said Adrian Grundy, manager of corporate communications for FedEx, which donated use of the “FedEx Panda Express,” an MD-11F plane, free of charge for the mission. Mr. Grundy said it’s the sixth time FedEx has transported Chinese pandas.

Er Shun and Da Mao, if they stay true to form, will spend most of their flight eating bamboo – the adult panda eats about 45 kilograms of it a day – sleeping and scratching themselves. The plane touches down briefly in Vancouver for a refuelling stop.

Li Mingxi, one of the two Chinese panda specialists who will fly to Canada with Er Shun and Da Mao, said the bears are actually calm fliers, unless it’s a bumpy ride. Toronto Zoo vet Simon Hollamby will also accompany the bears and is slated to leave for China on Tuesday.

“What I’m most concerned about is reducing their stress, because of the long trip and especially packing and moving them. In fact, if it’s a closed environment without noises, they should be pretty quiet,” Mr. Li said in a telephone interview from Chengdu. “They will have to get up pretty early [on March 25] and the long journey will make them tired. In the early bit, they might be very sleepy. When the flight is steady, we can give them some food and water. But we can’t stay with pandas when the plane meets the turbulence because the cargo part [of the plane] is separated from the passenger part.”

On arrival in Toronto there will be a reception of some kind, although the details remain in flux. A source said the original plan was to have a smallish celebration, headed by Mr. Harper’s wife, Laureen, to greet the pandas at Pearson. Ms. Harper interacted with Er Shun when Mr. Harper visited Chongqing on a visit to China early last year and looked far more comfortable with the bristly bear than her husband did.

But as other politicians caught wind of the plan, and decided they too wanted to be photographed with the spotted bears, the party grew. Although the final plan is not yet public, sources say Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Foreign Minister John Baird have all made it clear they want to be at the welcome ceremony. Chinese ambassador Zhang Junsai is expected to be on hand for the reception.

“I expect several people to be in attendance as the panda arrival is highly anticipated and great for Canadian tourism,” Ms. Vaux said.

After the speeches, it’s off to a mandatory 30-day quarantine for Er Shun and Da Mao. Their arrival will coincide with union negotiations; CUPE Local 1600 zoo workers gave their bargaining committee a mandate to strike should the contract talks break down.

In May, the pandas will emerge from quarantine for display at the zoo’s 1,300-square-metre Giant Panda Exhibit, which boasts two separate outdoor spaces since the animals are solitary in the wild. Both pandas will have access to a pool where they can “have a little dip,” caves where they can “curl up” in the shade and climbing structures in case they’re feeling active, said Maria Franke, the zoo’s mammal curator.

Mr. Li, the panda specialist who has helped raise Da Mao since he was a cub, admitted he will be sad to see his charge leave the Chengdu breeding ground. “Da Mao is such a soft and handsome boy. Such a nice temper. … We are all very reluctant to let him go. All the panda keepers and staff have been dropping by to have their photos taken with him. We want to accompany him as long as we can.”

If anyone is more nervous than Mr. Li about how all this will go, it might be Er Shun and Da Mao. Not only are they being airlifted out of the only homes they’ve ever known, they’re leaving balmy southwest China for the chillier climes of southern Canada. But Ms. Franke said pandas prefer cold to heat, as they are found at high elevation in Chinese mountain ranges. The zoo, in fact, has built a 274-square-metre, air-conditioned indoor viewing site for particularly hot summer days.

The big question remains whether they will procreate, given that there are only about 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild.

Part of the reason their numbers are dwindling is that pandas are famously reluctant copulaters. The Chengdu research base was this week using “panda porn” – videos of successful mating attempts – to try and inspire their dispassionate bears to do as they see.

Another problem is that it’s often difficult to determine the gender of younger pandas – which is why the gender of Ji Li, the left-behind bear, could only be determined after a blood test. The Toronto Zoo is hopeful about Er Shun and Da Mao, building a third outdoor site – this one off-limits to the public – in case a little cub some day needs some solitary space of its own.

Adding to the pressure, Er Shun and Da Mao will only meet each other for the first time at the Chengdu airport, shortly before they’re loaded onto a FedEx plane and their new life together. At least they both like bamboo.

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