Roll out the red carpet: Giant pandas touchdown in Toronto

Today, two very special guests are arriving at Toronto's Pearson International Airport: giant pandas Er Shun and Da Mao.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, his wife, Laureen, and other dignitaries will be at the airport to greet the rare pandas at the end of their almost-24-hour journey from the Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, China to Toronto.

The bears will arrive in a modified FedEx Express Canada MD11 aircraft, dubbed the "Panda Express," specially marked with an image of a panda. A veterinarian, two attendants, 50 kilograms of apples and 200 kilograms of bamboo travelled with the pandas.

"They actually eat quite a lot. Up to 16 hours a day they can spend eating. They can consume anywhere from 14 to 20 kilograms of bamboo a day to make sure they get enough nutrition," FedEx Express Canada president Lisa Lisson told the Canadian Press. "They're very picky, too. They might go through 10 bamboo just to find one that they like."

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Er Shun and Da Mao's arrival marks the first panda visit to the city in nearly 25 years, and is considered by some to represent a "diplomatic bear hug" between Beijing and Ottawa, following criticisms that Harper's government has been slow to develop relations with China.

"I would attach great significance to the fact that China would place in Canada’s care the pandas that are coming," Peter Harder, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs and now president of the Canada China Business Council, told the Globe and Mail. "It's a signal of their desire to have economic as well as cultural and people-to-people relationships, and to that extent, I think it’s a significant development."

The Harpers met Er Shun, a 5-year-old female panda, when they visited China last year. Upon returning to Canada, they announced the 10-year panda loan. The pandas will spend five years in Toronto, then five years in Calgary.

On Sunday, Laureen Harper tweeted: "Looking forward to welcoming two special visitors tomorrow. The kids and families of Toronto and Calgary will love Er Shun and Da Mao!"

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The Canadian Press reports that Er Shun and Da Mao, a 4-year-old male, will be immediately quarantined upon arriving at the Toronto Zoo. The zoo has a 1,300-square-metre exhibit ready for its new additions, complete with a pool, caves and climbing structures.

"We’re hoping that when they’re at the Toronto zoo they are going to breed, so we can protect this endangered species," said Lisson. "This is their first big date. They’ve never met before." said Lisson.

FedEx Express continues to be involved with the panda exhibit, CBC News reports, by delivering fresh bamboo to the pandas several times a week.

The exhibit won't be open to the public until mid-May.

Zoo officials expect the pandas to attract an additional 300,000 visitors to the zoo this years, a needed boost for the city-owned facility in need of greater attendance and greater private donations.

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"These are perhaps the cutest creatures on the planet Earth," said Toronto city councillor and zoo-board member Glenn De Baeremaeker. "I think there will be a lot of attention on the pandas, on the zoo and on Toronto."