Germany was bracing for panda mania as furry ambassadors arrive from China on Saturday, destined for a new life as stars of Berlin’s premier zoo.
The pair, named Meng Meng and Jiao Qing, will be jetting in on a special Lufthansa cargo plane, accompanied by two Chinese panda specialists, the Berlin Zoo’s chief vet and a tonne of bamboo.
Berlin’s mayor, China’s ambassador to Germany and a gaggle of journalists will greet the VIPs as LH8415 pulls to a stop on the tarmac of Schoenefeld airport.
After just over a week’s acclimatisation, they will be unveiled to the public by no less than Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping, most likely two days before the G20 summit of world leaders hosted by Germany.
Famed for its “panda diplomacy”, China has dispatched its national treasure to only about a dozen countries as a symbol of close relations.
Export giants Germany and China have nurtured increasingly close economic ties, and over the last year the have also taken on the leading role in championing free trade as Donald Trump shifts the US away from market liberalisation with his “America First” push.
“The Chinese see the pandas as Chinese brand ambassadors. China obviously has an image problem in Europe and giving pandas is a very smart and easy way to win hearts,” said Bernhard Bartsch from the Bertelsmann Foundation think tank in Berlin.
The “pandas will lend a very positive spin in German media to the visit by Xi Jinping in July,” he added.
The excitement over the two bears is evident in the run-up to their arrival, with the zoo publishing a daily updated blog about the pair.
“We are obviously nervous now because everything must go well,” Berlin Zoo director Andreas Knieriem told SWR radio on Friday.
“There’s a plane flying them in exclusively, and the flight route — Chengdu to Berlin — is not a usual route. But I think we are well prepared,” he said.
The 12 hour, 20 minute journey to Germany has been carefully prepared, with “bamboo snacks” to keep the pandas happy and absorbent mats to ensure the transport box stays dry and odourless.
And their new home at Berlin’s zoo will measure about 5,500 square metres (59,000 square feet) and comes fitted with a wooded climbing area and an artificial stream.
Meng Meng means “dream” in Chinese, while Jiao Qing translates as “darling”, though the Chinese characters are a composite of “tender” and “festive” or “celebration”.
But the honour of hosting them does not come cheap.
The zoo will pay $15 million (13.4 million euros) for a 15-year contract to host them, with most of the money going towards a conservation and breeding research programme in China.
And the pandas’ main dish — bamboo — will cost tens of thousands of euros each year.
The zoo will probably look to offset part of its outlays through panda-themed merchandising.
Ultimately, it hopes that the pair will produce babies, even if experts have warned that panda reproduction is a fine art.
Panda expert Jerome Pouille said that “the female is only receptive to a male for about 24 to 48 hours a year”, adding that there was little chance of a cub within the first three years.
China has previously given three pandas to Germany, but the last one, 34-year-old Bao Bao, died in Berlin in 2012, having become the oldest male panda in the world.
About 1,864 pandas remain in the wild in China, up from around 1,000 in the late 1970s, according to the environmental group WWF.
Just over 400 pandas live in zoos around the world, in conservation projects set up with Beijing.
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