Two giant pandas on loan from China for the next 15 years received a red-carpet welcome in Belgium on Sunday where they were greeted by Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.
Hao Hao, a four-year-old female whose name means “Friendly”, and Xing Hui (“Shining Star”), a male of the same age, landed around midday at Brussels airport after their journey in a pagoda-style cage onboard a cargo plane.
Their plane, arriving after a 15-hour flight from Sichuan in southwest China, taxied into place through an arc of water from the hoses of Belgian firefighters.
Watch: All smiles as pandas arrive
The pandas, each weighing over 110kg, emerged to find around 100 journalists and dozens of children from a nearby school waiting to welcome them.
“We are very honoured and proud that China agreed to lend Belgium two of its national treasures,” said Di Rupo.
The new arrivals were then whisked under police escort to the Pairi Daiza zoo in the town of Brugellette, 60 kilometres outside Brussels. They arrived at around 3pm local time at their new home.
The zoo said the pandas slept a lot on the journey over and arrived in good shape.
About 2,500 people, many of them excited children waving the flags of China and Belgium along with flags decorated with pandas, greeted the pandas along the road to the zoo. Some of the spectators were in panda costumes.
Entry tickets to the zoo were sold out on Sunday, even though zookeepers had warned that Hao Hao and Xing Hui would not be making any public appearances until they have acclimatised and finished a period in quarantine, due to end on April 5. The zoo has capped the daily number of visitors allowed to see the pandas at 18,000.
Visitors on Monday could only observe the pandas through a closed-circuit television system in the reception area.
The zoo has spent some 10 million euros (HK$105,300) to prepare a vast enclosure for its new guests in its “China Garden”, featuring a pool, cave and bamboo plantation. The enclosure is said to span 5,300 square metres.
Eric Domb, the zoo’s director, said 8 million euros were spent on a Chinese temple and the panda enclosure, while the rest was spent on improving the conditions of the rest of the zoo, as a “warm welcome” to the pandas.
“They have flown over a thousand mountains and a thousand rivers to arrive in Belgium,” said China’s ambassador to Belgium, Liao Liqiang, adding that he hoped the gesture would improve relations between Beijing and Brussels.
The Belgian press has also reported that 1 million euros per year was being paid as “rent” for the pandas, which have been a valuable tool for soft diplomacy and revenue collection for China over the years.
The zoo said it would feed the pandas 40 different varieties of bamboo from France and the Netherlands to single out which one the animals preferred. The variety will be planted on a four-hectare bamboo plantation the zoo has reserved.
“It’s a good thing for Belgium,” said Nicole Duflot, who came to the zoo with her husband and grandson. “Though today we can’t see the panda, it’s a great thing for us to come here.”
“I hope the panda research co-operation programme will bear fruit soon, and Xing Hui and Hao Hao can soon give birth to a baby panda," Li Qingwen, deputy secretary-general of the China Wildlife Conservation Association, said while addressing the zoo's visitors.
"I hope the Belgium people continue to pay close attention to them and protect them," Li said.
Giant pandas are an endangered species, with only 1,600 left in the wild in China and 300 in captivity around the world.
State news agency Xinhua said this was the first time China loaned out pandas for a 15 years, as the lease term is usually 10 years. More than 40 pandas on lease, some of which have given birth overseas, and live in 18 zoos in 13 countries.
In 1987, two giant pandas visited Belgium but only stayed a few months. Built on ruins of a medieval monastery, Pairi Daiza Zoo is considered one of the best zoos in Europe, already housing other rare or vulnerable species such as the red-crowned crane and the red panda.