Pandas touch down to seal France-China friendship

A PAIR of giant pandas received a state welcome as they landed in Paris yesterday on a ten-year loan to France from China in a traditional diplomatic gesture aimed at strengthening ties between the two countries.

Huan Huan and Yuan Zi, aged three, touched down at Charles de Gaulle Airport and were then escorted to their new home in France’s Loire Valley, accompanied by a Republican Guard motorcade normally reserved for heads of state.

“We are giving them such a welcome because they represent part of China’s national treasure,” said Rodolphe Delord, head of ZooParc de Beauval, where the bears will live.

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“When China agrees to lend pandas to a country, it’s a great show of confidence and friendship,” Mr Delord told journalists.

The comes week after two giant pandas arrived in Edinburgh as part of a deal with the Chinese government.

Relations between Paris and Beijing have been tested in recent years, starting with the disruption of the Paris leg of the Olympic torch relay by pro-Tibet activists ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Paris’ decision to make the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, an honorary citizen, also fuelled tensions and led to sporadic boycotts of French firms in China, which has ruled Tibet since sending in troops in 1950.

The two countries subsequently moved to repair Sino-French ties, and Chinese President Hu Jintao visited France in 2010.

A year ago, a supposed case of industrial espionage at French carmaker Renault that turned out to be a fraud, briefly revived tensions after a French government source said investigators were looking into a possible link with China.

China has been sending pandas abroad in gestures of goodwill since the 1950s in what has come to be known as “panda diplomacy”.

Huan Huan and Yuan Zi are the first pandas on French soil since the death of Yen Yen at Vincennes zoo, just outside Paris, in 2000.

The pair, from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, flew in a specially equipped FedEx-operated Boeing 777 freighter, spending the flight snoozing and eating bamboo in custom-built enclosures, according to FedEx.

They were looked after during the flight by Mr Delord and a Chinese vet and animal handler.

At ZooParc de Beauval, considered one of the 15 most beautiful zoos in the world and home to 4,600 animals, the black-and-white bears will be given four weeks to settle into their new surroundings before going on display to the public from 11 February.

They will reside in the new Chinese area at the zoo, where they will enjoy two interior enclosures with air conditioning, two exterior areas containing Chinese plants and as much bamboo as they desire, and where it is hoped they will breed.

The giant panda is seen as having come back from the brink of extinction, but remains under threat from logging, agriculture and rapid urbanisation.

There are an estimated 1,600 of the animals living wild in China, almost all in Sichuan.

Around 300 are in captivity around the world, the vast majority of them inside China.