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Video: Tony Öhberg

Interviews: Richard Bedhall

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Giant pandas arrived at the Helsinki Airport last Thursday, the panda couple, Chinese names Hua Bao and Jin Baobao and renamed Lumi and Pyry (meaning Snow and Snowfall in Finnish).  Appropriately in the middle of a snow storm, and temperatures with wind-chill down to minus 15 degrees Celsius, they were received with tight security outside the VIP Presidential suite, but the animal guests appeared oblivious to the attention.

The new arrivals follow in the footsteps of the many migrant giant pandas the Chinese government has given or loaned since 1958.  Famous pandas Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing were used as diplomatic gifts to the USA in 1972 following the historic visit of President Nixon to China.  Chia Chia and Ching Ching went to London Zoo following a visit to China by Britain’s prime minister, Edward Heath in 1974. Both gifts as part of a concerted effort by the Republic of China to establish diplomatic and trade ties with the West.

Apart from being agents of diplomacy, since 1984 pandas have been used to generate funds that are supposed to go towards conservation efforts inside China. To some extent the Chinese have been successful because the Panda has gone from endangered to vulnerable status and breeding in captivity has been having some success.  Locating different breeding pairs around the world may also be a good idea to alleviate the effect of any disasters in any one country, especially following the devastating 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan region of China, that destroyed most of the panda houses at the captive breeding center, and killed thousands of people.

Until the pandas arrived in Finland there were only a few places to see a giant panda in Europe including Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Austria, Madrid Zoo in Spain, ZooParc de Beauval in France, Pairi Daiza in Belgium, Ouwehands Dierenpark in the Netherlands Berlin Zoo, and Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. The pair of Scottish pandas arrived in December 2011 to much fanfare at Edinburgh Zoo, the first pandas in the UK for many years. The male, Tian Tian, meaning “sweetie,” and his female companion, Yang Guang, meaning “sunshine,” had two weeks to settle into their new enclosure before going on display to the public.

Many questions were raised about the funding of such a project. The purpose-built enclosures in Edinburgh cost around 250,000 British pounds, and the Chinese government was expecting a payment of £600,000 for each of the ten years the pandas are on loan. The ability of the panda’s to attract extra paying visitors was supposed to pay for all this according to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland but skeptics were worried following the problems encountered by Adelaide Zoo in Australia.  It was estimated that in their first year (2009) the Australian panda pair injected an extra 57 million Australian dollars into the local economy but since the zoo struggled financially, so much that the government of South Australia and Westpac Bank stepped in to prevent bankruptcy.

The panda is a member of the bear family and classified as a carnivore but unlike its relatives it is strictly vegetarian, predominantly eating bamboo shoots. To compensate for the limited energy content of its diet, the average giant panda can eat up to 14 kilos of bamboo shoots a day and the Edinburgh Zoo pandas eat £70,000 worth of organic standard food each year, and their Finnish cousins also have a European supplier of organic bamboo.  Ingestion of such a large quantity of material is possible because of the rapid passage of large amounts of indigestible plant material through the short, straight digestive tract resulting in defecating up to 40 times a day. That is an awful lot of cleaning up for the zookeepers.  The limited energy input of the panda diet affects behavior. The giant panda tends to limit its social interactions and avoids steeply sloping terrain to limit its energy expenditures. The pandas may well be sleeping when on view in their new enclosure that opens to the public on February 17, 2018.

Panda greets the guests at the Helsinki Airport on January 18, 2018. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Lumi and Pyry will be living at Ähtäri Zoo, located in central Finland. The zoo has built a new panda house and large outside enclosures, which greatly impressed the Chinese officials in charge of panda conservation. Speaking with Mikko Savola, the chairman of the company board that runs Ähtäri Zoo, he appeared very optimistic about the panda project that had started three and half years ago. The funding being raised entirely by the zoo company.  Compared to other countries the time from concept to completion was very fast and was costing about 8.1 million euros, probably comparable with the amounts spent by Edinburgh Zoo mentioned above. Asian kings and emperors used to give rare white elephants to foreign countries in the knowledge that their care and feed was very expensive, but the gesture would keep diplomatic relations close. Some commentators suggest that the panda has become the latest white elephant. Time will tell.

In April of last year, Ähtäri Zoo and Finland entered into a 15-year contract to fund panda and forestry protection work in China, with 70 percent of funds targeted at nature conservation, 10 percent for the Dujiangyan Panda Sanctuary, 10 percent for research and 10 percent for administration. This conservation project, maybe one of the most important investments by Finland to preserve biodiversity in the world for future generations. This commitment combined with Finland’s 40-year long track record of co-operating with China about forestry and environmental matters and of course the hi-tech trade ties swung the decision in favor of the pandas being loaned to Ähtäri Zoo by the Chinese government.

According to the Chinese ambassador to Finland, Chen Li, the Chinese people love Finland for its many lakes, pristine nature, the friendliness of the Finnish people and the big draw of the spectacular Northern Lights. Now there will be even more for the Chinese tourist to see, and the pandas also raise environmental awareness worldwide and in China. The ambassador liked the Helsinki to Beijing direct flights which are very convenient and the shortest route so that Helsinki has become the hub for Chinese people entering other European countries.

All these diplomatic and conservation efforts may also benefit the love life of Lumi and Pyry. It is thought that the climate of mid-Finland will be ideal for the pandas, and it is hoped that the darker winter suddenly moving into a bright spring will stimulate the pair to breed. All the Chinese at the welcome party were very pleased to be part of the panda program, and the normally reserved Finnish were ebullient too.