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News:Giant pandas land in Toronto,greeted as VIPs (Xinhua News)
2013/03/28

TORONTO, March 25 (Xinhua) -- Deemed as "symbols of peace and friendship" by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a pair of giant pandas were treated like royalties as they touched down in the Canadian city of Toronto on Monday.

After a lengthy 18-hour trip covering nearly 12,875 km across the world, the two much-anticipated "celebrities" were greeted by Harper and his wife Laureen, Chinese ambassador to Canada Zhang Junsai and a number of dignitaries and media outlets.

Er Shun, a five-year-old female panda, and her four-year-old prospective mate Da Mao arrived in style, with everyone sitting at the edge of their seats to catch a quick glimpse of them.

The 'Panda Express', a FedEx Express Canada MD-11 aircraft with the pandas' faces branded on the sides, landed with the precious cargo from Chengdu, China, at around 10:45 a.m (1545 GMT).

The pair, who are on a 10-year loan to Canada, were immediately welcomed into the country with a national anthem performed by a group of high school students who travelled over 450 km from Ottawa to attend the ceremony.

The crowd cheered as Da Mao was first unloaded from the aircraft by crew members. As esteemed guests, their arrival protocol was a bit different from other two-legged dignitaries: Harper had to sign for the precious cargo to become official, a moment he says he won't forget.

"It's not everyday in your life you get to sign for pandas," he said.

It's a moment many have been waiting for since Harper officially announced the loan after his visit to China back in February 2012.

Referring to the giant pandas as "symbols of peace and friendship" between the two countries on Monday, Harper said the arrival of Er Shun and Da Mao - who will first stay at the Toronto Zoo for five years and then move to the Calgary Zoo in the province of Alberta for the remainder of the 10-year term - will help promote the friendship between the two countries.

"Canada and China are strategic partners, we enjoy an active economic relationship and strong people-to-people ties," said Harper in a speech. "Over the coming years, 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 collaborations."

"It is truly an honor to be entrusted with their care," he added.

Zhang, who was also at the ceremony, dubbed the pandas as VIPS, or "Very Important Pandas". He joked about the stark difference between the greeting he received on his arrival in Ottawa two years ago and the big party and the long list of guests to welcome the pandas' arrival.

"Er Shun and Da Mao, the two new envoys of friendship from China are accorded with such a grand welcoming ceremony," he said. "But instead of being jealous, I'm thrilled and overjoyed."

"The arrival of Er Shun and Da Mao today is yet another highlight of the exchanges between our great two nations and for the next decade to come," said Zhang in his remarks. "China is committed, for many more years to come, to further promoting the mutual understanding and friendship between our two peoples."

"It's a bit overwhelming, the interest and the depth of the interest on both sides of the world," Toronto Zoo's CEO John Tracogna told Xinhua. "I knew giant pandas would create a lot of interest, but I didn't realize how much interest."

This exposure will go a long way into educating Canadians about the plight of giant pandas and the importance of conservation, he added.

While this marks a major milestone in the two countries' efforts to deepen ties, the trip was also made possible by a very experienced FedEx team which has handled six panda moves.

It took over a week for the pandas to become acclimated to their enclosures before taking off from China. The FedEx aircraft was stocked with over 100 kg of bamboo, 150 kg of bamboo shoots, 50 kg of apples and 15 kg of fresh water to ensure the pandas would not go hungry during their long flight.

The global courier delivery service will also be responsible for delivering fresh bamboo growing in the United States several times a week for the pair to eat.

After a brief meeting with Harper and the greeting crowd, the two cuddly and likely jet-lagged pandas were escorted by a convoy in their customized FedEx Panda Express trucks to the Toronto Zoo where they will be quarantined for 30 days.

It'll be time for them to not only adjust to their new surroundings, but also to each other. They'll be meeting each other for the very first time. With giant pandas known to be ambivalent about mating, the hope is that Er Shun and Da Mao will become more than friends and produce offspring, which will lengthen their stay.

"I'm pretty sure that Er Shun and Da Mao will live happily here and I also hope they will soon produce some junior Kung-Fu pandas," said Zhang.

The last time pandas were seen at the Toronto Zoo was during a three-month exhibit back in 1985. The newly arrived pandas are expected to make their first public appearance at the zoo's special Giant Panda Exhibit around May 18.

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