Giant pandas now on display on both sides of the Channel

This Saturday saw giant pandas Huan Huan and Yuan Zi finally go on display to the public in their new home in France (the big event was delayed by one week due to the recent cold snap). The family-run ZooParc de Beauval, in France’s central Loire valley, has built impressive enclosures for the pandas, with decor imported directly from China. It’s the first time the black and white endangered animals have been visible in France for twelve years.


Of course, France is now upsides with the UK in the panda department. In December of last year, Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland acquired its own pair of giant pandas, Tian Tian and Yang Guan, just in time for the Christmas holidays. Here is a comparison of the cuddly (but fierce) creatures.


Huan Huan and Yuan Zi in their new home in France. Main photo and thumbnail photo © ZooParc de Beauval


Did the arrival of the two sets of pandas generate equal amounts of media attention?
Definitely not. While in the UK there was wall-to-wall coverage of the Edinburgh Zoo pandas for weeks on end, the French media has been tame by comparison in its reports on Huan Huan and Yuan Zi. But this is no doubt due to the way the arrival of each pair of animals was announced.


What were the differences?
The arrival of the Edinburgh Zoo pandas, minus the date of their arrival, was officially announced no less than twice, each time during a visit of a top Chinese leader to the UK. From the initial announcement to the actual arrival of the pandas, the anticipation was spread over a period of almost a year. In France, the timing could not have been more different. The initial announcement was supposed to be made at the G20 summit in Cannes in November 2011, but the pandas were pushed off the agenda due to Greece's debt woes, meaning their arrival could not be discussed! The deal was eventually signed in China in early December and the pandas arrived in France just over a month later.


Panda facts

Sources: BBC News, ZooParc de Beauval, Le Figaro Magazine.


Why did the negotiations take so long?
It may sound obvious, but China only loans its pandas to countries it is on good terms with. The negotiations are carried out at the highest diplomatic level and involve the heads of state. In the case of both France and the UK, there has been no shortage of diplomatic "incidents" over the past five years which have irritated the Chinese. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown irked Beijing by meeting the Dalai Lama in 2008. Worse, the Paris leg of the 2008 Olympic torch relay was a disaster, disrupted by pro-Tibet protesters. All this slowed down the process of obtaining the pandas. As a recent article in Le Figaro Magazine explains, the Arab Spring also complicated matters laterally: relations with China cooled considerably around the time of the UN Security Council vote on Libya last year (remember France and the UK voted in favour and China abstained).


By comparison, the deal signed this week to loan two giant pandas to Canada reportedly only took two years of serious negotiations.


How are the pandas settling in?

The Edinburgh Zoo pandas have both been under the weather recently with a bout of colic, but are now back on show. The illness, which is not serious, was no doubt linked to the change in their bamboo, according to their veterinary surgeon. "Having discussed this with our colleagues in China, they reassure us this is not uncommon in pandas", an Edinburgh Zoo official added. As for the "French" pandas, it is a little early to tell - although they look quite happy playing in the snow in the video below.



Huan Huan and Yuan Zi discover their outdoor enclosure at France's ZooParc de Beauval (video in French). Video uploaded on Feb 17th, 2012.


Any clues as to which pair of pandas will breed first?
No prizes for getting this one right: the Edinburgh Zoo pandas are five years older than their French counterparts, so logically they will be the first ones to have a cub. The baby panda will remain the property of China, and will in fact be flown back there once it reaches the age of three. It is worth noting that the French pandas currently share the same enclosures, while the Edinburgh Zoo pandas are kept apart, with a connecting tunnel (which will be opened in the spring in the hope they mate). However, the French pandas will not be playing side by side forever. "They will be separated later on", ZooParc de Beauval communications director Delphine Delord told me in a phone interview.


Can we expect to see politicians at photo ops with the pandas?

There have been rumours that French President Nicolas Sarkozy will visit the animals, perhaps with his wife Carla, but his office told me it is not at all on his official agenda for the moment. As for Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, his office told me he is indeed hoping to visit the Edinburgh Zoo pandas "at some point in the near future". I would not be surprised if both men posed with the pandas: one is running for re-election, and the other has a referendum on Scottish independence to promote.

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Giant pandas live in a few mountain ranges in central China, in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces. They once lived in lowland areas, but farming, forest clearing, and other development now restrict giant pandas to the mountains

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