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Calgary Zoo returning giant pandas to China

CALGARY, Alberta – The Calgary Zoo will be returning two giant pandas on loan from China because a scarcity of flights because of COVID-19 has caused problems with getting enough fresh bamboo to feed them.

Er Shun and Da Mao arrived in Calgary in 2018 after spending five years at the Toronto Zoo and were to remain in the Alberta city until 2023.

The zoo’s president, Clement Lanthier, said Thursday the facility spent months trying to overcome transportation barriers in acquiring fresh bamboo and decided it’s best for the animals to be in China, where their main food source is abundant. Bamboo is rare in Canada, and they prefer only certain kinds.

“They are picky,” Lanthier said. “There’s a reason why they are endangered. They need their bamboo. That’s all they do. They eat bamboo and they sleep.”

Lanthier said the zoo had contingency plans for a steady supply of fresh bamboo, but limits on flights from China was the first problem. Transporting more from California added even more frustrations.

“Every 10 days there is more and more problem moving bamboo to Calgary. This risk is unacceptable,” he said. “I cannot risk not being able to provide the best care to the panda every day. For other species there are options. For the panda, it has to be freshly delivered twice a week. It’s time for the panda to go back home.”

Lanthier said the animals didn’t like some of the bamboo they got from other parts of the U.S.

“It wasn’t tasty enough,” he said. “The panda discarded that shipment.”

Other supplies that arrived from Los Angeles were past their expiration point.

“The shelf life of bamboo is four to five days maximum,” he said.

Giant pandas have unique nutritional requirements and 99% of their diet is made up of fresh bamboo. Each adult consumes about 40 kilograms daily. Lanthier said the news came as a bit of a shock to the Chinese government. In other locations where pandas are exhibited – such as France, Spain and parts of Asia – bamboo can be grown locally.

He said the pandas had been one of the biggest draws at the Calgary Zoo, but the decision wasn’t one about business.

There’s no date for when the pandas will return home but he hopes it will happen in the next couple of weeks. Lanthier doesn’t want the Canadian and Chinese governments to delay things. He expects to get an export permit next week.

“I hope they move swiftly. We need to move them to a place where bamboo is abundant,” he said.