Heavy snow was falling on the morning of January the 18th at Helsinki Airport. The year’s first real snowfall taking place just before that day seems apt, as the two pandas arriving in Finland on this date, were recently given Finnish nicknames Pyry and Lumi – meaning Blizzard and Snow.
Airport marshaller Heikki Kari, who was on duty that Thursday, says that the airport staff was busy since early morning setting things up for the pandas’ arrival. The area in front of the VIP President terminal was cleared of snow, a media wall was installed, and the Chinese, Finnish and EU flags raised outside the terminal.
The interior of the terminal was also prepared for press and guests, with a special panda-themed cake served at the beginning of the press conference.
Best possible gift for 100-year-old Finland
After nine, the guests started arriving, including press from all of the largest media organizations in Finland, as well as representatives from China, Finland, the city of Ähtäri and Ähtäri Zoo – the new home of the pandas.
“It’s a great honor to witness the arrival of Hua Bao and Jin Baobao. Finland being a part of the conservation effort of the giant panda, is a wonderful thing. I believe that the warm and trusting relationships between our countries has made this possible. We could not have wished for a better gift from China to celebrate Finland’s centenary,” said Finnish Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Jari Leppä.
“The fact that it has taken only three years from the start of our negotiations to the arrival of the pandas, is a sign that we trust each other,” confirmed Chinese Ambassador Chen Li.
He also ventured a guess that it started snowing in Finland right when the pandas started their trip from China’s Chengdu towards Ähtäri.
“It’s Finland’s way of welcoming Lumi and Pyry. Is there a word in Finnish that means the offspring of snow?” Li asked. “I’m very much hoping we will need such a word already next year when Lumi and Pyry have babies.”
The ambassador also wished that the panda couple will fall in love with their new home in Ähtäri. Besides being a part of Chinese and Finnish diplomacy, Pyry and Lumi are first and foremost a part of the conservation efforts for the giant panda species. The hope is that they will breed in Ähtäri, where weather conditions resemble those of the giant panda’s natural habitat.
A perfect flight for the pandas
The plane carrying the pandas arrived on schedule at ten in the morning, The cargo plane, a four-engine Ilyushin IL-76TD-90TD, was originally designed to transport military equipment, says Jari-Pekka Jouppi from I2, the advertising agency of Ähtäri Zoo.
“It could carry several military tanks, for instance, but today the cargo is two pandas. The animals would fit into a smaller plane, but smaller cargo planes would have had to stop to refuel on the way, and they wanted to transport the pandas on a direct flight,” Jouppi says.
Jouppi says he also talked to the panda caretaker from Ähtäri Zoo, according to whom the pandas’ flight had been “perfect.”
“The male panda ate all of the bamboo reserved for it, and the female also ate, which is a sign that they are doing well. The male, Hua Bao, is known for its good appetite, and Chinese panda experts have suggested that it may become the largest panda in the world,” Jouppi says.
First look at the pandas at Helsinki Airport
Finally, the ramp at the back of the cargo plane was opened, and the pandas were lifted out in their delivery boxes.
The audience and photographers got a first glimpse of Finland’s first pandas live, as they were driven past the media wall. The two pandas sat rather comfortably inside their Plexiglass boxes, munching on bamboo stems.
After a few short minutes, the animals were loaded on to a delivery truck, and their journey through Helsinki Airport was over. The plan is that they will spend the next 15 years in Ähtäri Zoo: the panda house is expected to open to the public on the 17th of February.