Giant pandas begin five-year stay at Calgary Zoo; officials expect rush of visitors

Photo: GAVIN YOUNG / POSTMEDIA

 

A cuddly quartet of Chinese ambassadors were formally introduced to their newest home away from home at the Calgary Zoo Monday.

Giant pandas Er Shun and Da Mao, along with their Toronto-born cubs Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, made their long-awaited debut at the new Panda Passage exhibit, where they’ll munch bamboo and delight zoo-goers for the next five years.

Premier Rachel Notley, Mayor Naheed Nenshi, federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi and Chinese Ambassador Lu Sha Ye were all on hand at St. George’s Island to kick off the second leg of the pandas’ decade-long Canadian residency, following a five-year stint at the Toronto Zoo.

Dr. Clément Lanthier, president and CEO of the Calgary Zoo, said it’s been a long, agonizing wait for the jet-setting panda clan, but the payoff is worth it.

“This is a monumental achievement that required six years of preparations to welcome these giant pandas and thousands of additional visitors to our zoo,” he said.

“We’re planning to use the rock star status of the panda to attract people and start conversation about the less charismatic endangered species of Western Canada.

“We will talk to the people, we will talk about those endangered species, and we’ll make a difference.”

The furry family will be housed in the $14-million Panda Passage habitat, where it’s hoped they’ll work on some new cubs, with the two-and-a-half-year-old twins — whose names translate to Canadian Hope and Canadian Joy — set to return to China after 18 months in Calgary.

Lanthier said officials have high hopes they’ll be able to coax a stork to make another visit with clan matriarch Er Shun, whose name translates to Double Smoothness.

“The female pandas are receptive for breeding maybe two days a year,” he said, noting veterinarians will take blood samples and use ultrasounds to track Er Shun’s hormone levels to zero in on the best time for breeding, and then look for the ideal genetic fit to artificially inseminate her.

“We will monitor everything, but I think our chances are fairly good. The science of breeding pandas has been evolving dramatically in the last 10 years. That is the reason why the change of status of the panda from endangered to vulnerable because of the success of the captive breeding program.”

In preparation for the pandas’ arrival, zoo officials injected $100 million in upgrades to the attraction in anticipation of some 1.5 million visitors for the first year of their stay, a 25 per cent boost. It’s estimated the pandas’ presence will create $18 million in economic impact for the city.

The last time Calgary’s zoo hosted the gentle giants was 30 years ago, when a pair of pandas were loaned to the facility during its Olympic year for seven months.

Notley said the iconic animal ambassadors won’t just be a boon for conservation, but the province’s international profile as well.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to promote the pandas and to promote the need to focus on wildlife preservation,” she said.

“It’s even a greater opportunity to promote Alberta, and to bring tourists to this amazing zoo — this is already the most visited zoo in the country and with these pandas that will grow even more.”

The state-of-the-art panda palace at the zoo features 431 square metres of indoor, public-facing areas as well as 1,512 square metres of outdoor habitat, each boasting logs, trees and plants to help create a natural setting for the bears. The enclosure includes an enclosed nursing den in hopes Er Shun again becomes pregnant while in Calgary.

On loan to Calgary and Toronto for 10 years, the pandas, of which there are fewer than 1,800 in the wild, are part of the Global Giant Panda Conservation Breeding Program, which has helped remove them from the most endangered list.

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