Prime Minister Stephen Harper greeted a pair of giant pandas at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport today, marking the start of their much-anticipated 10-year stay in Canada.
Er Shun, a five-year-old female and Da Mao, a four-year-old male, arrived in Toronto from China aboard a FedEx flight that landed Monday morning.
For the next five years, the pandas will be at the Toronto Zoo, where it is hoped that Er Shun and Da Mao will be able to reproduce. They will spend the final half of their Canadian visit in Calgary.
The Toronto Zoo has not hosted giant pandas in almost three decades, the only prior occasion taking place over a few months in 1985.
Police helped control traffic as the furry visitors made their way to the zoo. And when the small convoy of four vehicles rolled into the zoo with Er Shun and Da Mao, staff and volunteers cheered their arrival.
The CBC's Aaron Saltzman reported that Er Shun and Da Mao will undergo a 30-day quarantine and will then spend a few weeks out of the public eye before their exhibit opens.
Saltzman said the zoo has high hopes for the panda exhibit, which is expected to formally open in May.
"Zoo officials are telling us that they expect the pandas to bring in an additional 300,000 to 500,000 visitors," Saltzman reported.
Harper and his wife, Laureen, waited on the tarmac at Pearson Airport Monday morning to greet the pandas as they emerged from the FedEx Panda Express plane after a 15-hour, 12,875-kilometre trip.
As the crates carrying Da Mao and Er Shun were offloaded, the prime minister walked up to the crates — which have transparent panels — to see the pandas.
"It has been more than 20 years since Canadians have had the opportunity to see giant pandas in our zoos," Harper told reporters on the tarmac.
"And friends, today our wait is almost over … I am truly delighted to officially welcome — I know we all are — Er Shun and Da Mao, two of China's national treasures."
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was also among the dignitaries on hand to welcome the animals. "Welcome to Toronto!" Ford said on Twitter shortly after the pandas touched down.
Zhang Junsai, the Chinese ambassador to Canada, was also at the airport for the animals' arrival in Toronto. He thanked the prime minister for welcoming "the VIPs — that is, Very Important Pandas — from China."
He said China is committed for many more years to "further promote the mutual understanding and friendship" with Canada.
"China and Canada are doing the right thing by joining hands together in protecting these endangered species," he told reporters. "So I'm pretty sure that Er Shun and Da Mao will live happily here. And I also hope that they will soon produce some junior kung-fu pandas."
A band from an Ottawa high school that won a contest to play for the pandas was performed at the Toronto airport.
"It's such a once-in-a-lifetime thing to have such incredible dignitaries here for such a monumental occasion," said Michael Harris, a student from Hillcrest High School. "It was really an incredible experience for all of us, something we won’t forget."
The pandas were scheduled to arrive in Toronto at 10:30 a.m. ET, but were delayed by about 20 minutes, FedEx said.
FedEx handled the transport of the giant pandas to Canada aboard an MD-11 plane dubbed the Panda Express. This is the sixth time the company has handled a panda move.
In a live interview with CBC News Network, FedEx Canada president Lisa Lisson said the pandas had adjusted well to their journey.
"They look quite happy," Lisson said, referring to photos sent via Twitter that show Da Mao chomping on bamboo inside the plane.
Plenty of legroom
Er Shun and Da Mao also had veterinarians travelling with them.
The bears had a "full entourage and lots of legroom," Lisson told CBC News Network host Heather Hiscox. They had "the whole plane to themselves."
Officials are hopeful the pair of pandas will become more than friends during their time together in Canada.
"We’re hoping that when they’re at the Toronto zoo they are going to breed, so we can protect this endangered species," said Lisson. "This is their first big date. They’ve never met before," she said.
But getting the two pandas to mate could be difficult — there's just a brief window each year in which a female panda can get pregnant.
And if a new panda is born, it will not be staying in Canada — it will be returned to China with its parents.
For the trip to Toronto, FedEx brought plenty of food — mostly bamboo and bamboo shoots, but also apples — for the pandas to munch on during their long journey.
FedEx will continue to be involved with the panda exhibit during Er Shun and Da Mao's time in Toronto. The company will be flying fresh bamboo for them to eat several times a week.
Canadian zoos have not hosted panda bears for more than two decades.
A pair of giant pandas came to the Toronto Zoo for a few months in 1985, and the Calgary Zoo hosted pandas in 1988. Their short stay in Toronto drew hundreds of thousands of visitors that year.
Another couple of pandas spent a brief period at the Winnipeg Zoo in 1989.