The high-school brass band struck up O Canada, officials scurried about distributing press kits, and the dignitaries on the tarmac shivered on their hard-backed chairs as the arrival of the two very important pandas approached.
Finally, Er Shun and Da Mao touched down at Toronto's Pearson airport Monday morning, a few minutes behind schedule but evidently none the worse for wear after their long, tiring flight from Chengdu, in southwest China, in their special cages.
And to say the black-and-white bears were treated like celebrities would be an understatement.
Six-year-old Er Shun and her new boyfriend, a year younger, were greeted at the sprawling FedEx terminal by a thicket of TV cameras and microphones and a sea of reporters.
Also close at hand, as the plane's big cargo doors disgorged the animals after their 15-hour trip, were Prime Minister Stephen Harper and China's ambassador to Canada, Zhang Junsai.
Both heaped praise on the happy event,hailed the arrival of the pandas as a symbol of goodwill and strong mutual ties.
Mr. Harper who first announced the arrangement during a visit to China last year,lauded the bears as "national treasures" of China, whose stay here will reinforce those ties. "These pandas will help us learn more about one another while serving as a reminder of our deepening relationship, a relationship based on mutual respect and growing collaboration," he said. "It is truly an honour to be entrusted with their care."
Mr. Zhang was no less ebullient, voicing the hope that the hard-to-breed bears would reproduce here. "I'm pretty sure that Er Shun and Da Mao will live happily here together and I hope they will soon produce some junior pandas," he said.
The aircraft that brought them to Canada normally carries almost 200 tonnes of freight, but this load was much lighter.
The pandas and their luggage, which included a multi-kilo load of bamboo shoots, boxes of apples and some favourite toys, flew in on a specially equipped, decal-adorned MD-11 FedEx cargo plane, complete with a Toronto Zoo veterinarian and attendants.
Lifted down from the plane's hold in their separate, custom-made steel boxes, the pair peered out as they were slowly driven past the phalanx of photographers.
Their first home away from home will be the Toronto Zoo, where they'll be on display for five years, followed by a five-year spell at the Calgary Zoo.
At both venues, the pandas are sure to be a major attraction. Their stay will also generate some revenue for the Chinese authorities, who will get a portion of the zoos' ticket proceeds.
After a few weeks in quarantine, the beasts will go on display May 18, marking the first time since the 1980s that giant pandas have been featured in a Canadian zoo.
"China and Canada are doing the right thing by joining hands together in protecting this endangered species," Mr. Zhang told guests at the airport, who included Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and other local politicians.
Certainly that would be a plus for the world's giant pandas, an endangered species comprising less than 2,000 bears – 1,600 in the wild and about 300 in captivity, according to figures compiled by the Toronto zoo, whose panda population up to now has comprised just three smaller red pandas.
Everything is ready for the two arrivals, said Maria Franke, the zoo's curator of mammals.
"What's in it for the pandas? Global recognition and education about conservation issues. We want to showcase giant pandas and get people connected to Er Shun and Dao Mao. … climate change is affecting their habitat, as well as, obviously, human expansion, so it's all about the conservation message."
From the airport the visitors were whisked with a police escort to the Toronto zoo on the other side of the city where they will for now be housed in the same facility, separately but close enough to see, smell and hear each other.
After that – the two did not know each other before their big Canadian adventure – they will be gradually introduced, in hopes they will breed about a year from now.
THE PANDA EXPRESS
This effort was FedEx Express's sixth panda shipment. Its previous excursions:
- The pandas: Mei Xiang and Tian Tian
- The route: From China to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Ten years later, FedEx would transport Tai Shan, the cub born to these two pandas.
- The pandas: Ya Ya and Le Le
- The route: China to Memphis
- The pandas: Tai Shan and Mei Lan
- The route: Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, respectively, to China
- The pandas: Tian Tian and Yang Guang
- The route: China to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland
- The pandas: Huan Huan and Yuan Zi
- The route: Chengdu, China, to ZooParc de Beauval, outside of Paris
FedEx is no stranger to animal cargo. Some of its more interesting past shipments:
- A tiger shark used in the filming Jaws
- Unhatched sea turtle eggs endangered by the Gulf Coast oil spill
- Sporting horses, including some competing in the Olympics
- White tigers – “They have quite a loud roar,” FedEx Canada president Lisa Lisson said in an interview
- Also: Polar bears, elephants, mountain lions, gorillas, eagles