Calgary Zoo to ship giant pandas back to China early due to difficulty getting bamboo during pandemic

The Calgary Zoo is shipping two giant pandas, Er Shun and Da Mao, back to China years ahead of schedule due to difficulty obtaining bamboo amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zoo asks for expedited panda shipping in face of COVID-19-related bamboo disruptions

Da Mao, an adult male, and Er Shun, an adult female, will be headed back to China due to bamboo supply issues. (Calgary Zoo)

The Calgary Zoo is shipping two giant pandas back to China years ahead of schedule due to difficulty obtaining bamboo amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zoo staff have struggled to import enough bamboo to feed giant pandas Er Shun and Da Mao — who are on loan to Canada from China until 2023 — due to flights being disrupted by the pandemic.

"This is too much stress on my team and on the pandas. Can you imagine not having bamboo for a few days?" zoo president and CEO Clément Lanthier told CBC News Tuesday.

"The pandas are eating almost exclusively bamboo. I need fresh bamboo being delivered twice a week."

The charity is asking the Canadian and Chinese governments to expedite the necessary permits to ship the pandas as soon as possible.

'Too unpredictable'

The zoo said it expects the supply of the panda's main food could be further disrupted by transportation struggles on very short notice, including if there is a second wave of COVID-19.

The challenges have resulted in substandard bamboo and smaller quantities already, Lanthier said. At times, the pandas refused to eat bamboo from new sources or bamboo that's aged in transit.

"They don't like the bamboo they get. They get fewer bamboo. The bamboo's too dry," Lanthier said.

"It's too unpredictable, and I cannot manage a collection here at the zoo with that kind of uncertainty of, 'Oh, will we be able to feed this species or that species tomorrow?' That's unacceptable."

Fresh bamboo makes up nearly the entire diet of a panda. An adult panda can eat roughly 40 kilograms a day.

Er Shun, an adult female giant panda, has been in Calgary since 2018. (Calgary Zoo)

The zoo started the permit process to move the pandas a few weeks ago, Lanthier said, in hopes of having those approved this week.

But he said he would like to work with both governments to expedite the process.

"We have exhausted all of our capacity, and it's too much of a risk for the welfare of the panda," Lanthier said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Calgary Zoo was ordering loads of bamboo to be flown directly from China to Calgary.

Calgary Zoo president and CEO Clément Lanthier says he would like support from the Canadian and Chinese governments to get the pandas back to China as soon as possible. (Mike Symington/CBC)

The pandemic, however, forced the cancellations of direct flights.

WestJet then moved to ship the bamboo through Toronto, the statement from the zoo said, but flights from China to Toronto were cut back as well.

In China, the pandas will have access to fresh and local bamboo, eliminating the supply concern.

'Extremely difficult' to find alternatives

Lanthier said his team tried to find alternate bamboo suppliers. They encountered missed flights, bamboo sent to the wrong cities, bamboo left sitting in warehouses or at an airport, and trucking issues.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, we saw the supply change," Lanthier said. "It's been extremely difficult."

Members of the public will be able to send in virtual farewells to the pandas using the PandaCam.

The Calgary Zoo invested in its park to encourage people to visit the giant pandas. The zoo has been closed to visitors for roughly two months now due to COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions. (Calgary Zoo)

The giant pandas were expected to stay in Canada for 10 years through an agreement with China. They arrived in 2014 to spend five years in Toronto. They had two cubs, Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, and moved to Calgary in 2018.

The cubs were later moved to China.

Lanthier said he and the staff are sad about the decision, but stressed what's important is the animals' welfare.

He said he encourages Calgarians and others to continue supporting the zoo and the other endangered animals in its care.

In April, the Calgary Zoo asked the public for help to feed other animals and said it was facing a financial shortfall due to the Alberta-mandated closure and a drop in donations.

With files from Mike Symington

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?