Giant pandas move to Toronto Zoo after greeting by PM

After a long flight from China and a greeting by Prime Minister Stephen Harper at Pearson International Airport, a pair of giant pandas moved on to the Toronto Zoo where they are due to spend the next five years on exhibit.

The much-anticipated panda visit arrives more than a year after Harper announced it during a visit to China in February 2012.

Er Shun, a five-year-old female, and Da Mao, a four-year-old male, will spend 10 years in Canada in total. After five years in Toronto, they will move on to Calgary for the second half of their stay.

A small crowd of staff and volunteers cheered as a convoy of four vehicles rolled into the zoo Monday with Er Shun and Da Mao riding aboard a pair of FedEx trucks that had panda-themed art on their sides.

Police helped control traffic as the furry visitors made their way to the zoo.

The arrival of Er Shun and Da Mao marks the first time in almost three decades that pandas have been at the Toronto Zoo.

The CBC's Aaron Saltzman reported that Er Shun and Da Mao will undergo a 30-day quarantine and will then spend a few weeks out of the public eye before their exhibit opens.

Saltzman said the zoo has high hopes for the panda exhibit, which is expected to formally open in May.

"Zoo officials are telling us that they expect the pandas to bring in an additional 300,000 to 500,000 visitors," he said Monday.

Harper and his wife, Laureen, waited on the tarmac at Pearson Airport Monday morning to greet the pandas as they emerged from the FedEx Panda Express plane that carried them to Canada from China, after a 15-hour, 12,875-kilometre trip.

As the crates carrying Da Mao and Er Shun were offloaded, the prime minister walked up to the crates — which have transparent panels — to see the pandas.

"It has been more than 20 years since Canadians have had the opportunity to see giant pandas in our zoos," Harper told reporters on the tarmac.

"And friends, today our wait is almost over... I am truly delighted to officially welcome — I know we all are — Er Shun and Da Mao, two of China's national treasures."

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was also among the dignitaries on hand to welcome the animals. "Welcome to Toronto!" Ford said on Twitter shortly after the pandas touched down.

Zhang Junsai, the Chinese ambassador to Canada, was also at the airport for the animals' arrival in Toronto. He thanked the prime minister for welcoming "the V.I.Ps. That is, Very Important Pandas from China."

He said that China is committed for many more years to "further promote the mutual understanding and friendship" with Canada.

"China and Canada are doing the right thing by joining hands together in protecting these endangered species," he told reporters during a news conference.

"So I'm pretty sure that Er Shun and Da Mao will live happily here. And I also hope that they will soon produce some junior kung-fu pandas."

The pandas were scheduled to arrive in Toronto at 10:30 a.m. ET, but were delayed by about 20 minutes, FedEx said.

FedEx handled the transport of the giant pandas to Canada aboard an MD-11 plane dubbed the Panda Express. This is the sixth time the company has handled a panda move.

FedEx Canada president Lisa Lisson was interviewed live on CBC News Network on Monday morning and said the pandas had adjusted well to their journey.

"They look quite happy," Lisson said, referring to photos send via Twitter that show Da Mao chomping on bamboo inside the plane.

Er Shun and Da Mao also had veterinarians travelling with them.

The bears had a "full entourage and lots of legroom," Lisson told CBC News Network host Heather Hiscox. They had "the whole plane to themselves.”

Officials are hopeful the pair of pandas will become more than friends during their time together in Canada.

"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," she said.

For the trip to Toronto, FedEx brought plenty of food — mostly bamboo and bamboo shoots, but also apples — for the pandas to munch on during their long journey.

FedEx will continue to be involved with the panda exhibit during Er Shun and Da Mao's time in Toronto. The company will be flying fresh bamboo for them to eat several times a week.

Canadian zoos have not hosted panda bears for more than two decades.

A pair of giant pandas came to the Toronto Zoo for a few months in 1985, and the Calgary Zoo hosted pandas in 1988. Their short stay in Toronto drew hundreds of thousands of visitors that year.

Another couple of pandas spent a brief period at the Winnipeg Zoo in 1989.

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