Finland – and Helsinki Airport – are preparing for the arrival of two very special guests: Giant panda couple Jin BaoBao and Hua Bao are landing at the airport on Thursday, the 18th of January.
The three-year-old female and four-year-old male panda, who were given the Finnish names Pyry and Lumi (Blizzard and Snow), will be on loan to Ähtäri Zoo for the next 15 years. The bears are arriving on a DHL cargo plane from Chengdu, China to Helsinki Airport, where they will be transferred to a truck and driven to Ähtäri. The pandas’ plane is expected to land in Helsinki on Thursday morning.
Here are a few facts about the pandas’ arrival and China’s panda diplomacy:
- Renting pandas is state-level business – “Two new Chinese ambassadors” to Finland
Getting pandas on loan from China is not a given: The giant panda or Ailuropoda melanoleuca is a rare species and a symbolic animal for the Chinese state. China has lent pandas to only 14 countries in the world, and the deal is made on the state level.
So-called panda diplomacy refers to China’s use of giant pandas as a form of soft power. Pandas are usually lent to countries with which China either has or wishes to build especially warm relations. Pyry and Lumi’s arrival can thus be seen as a sign of China’s favorable opinion of Finland.
“I heard that the Chinese ambassador has said that China now has three ambassadors in Finland – himself and the two pandas,” says Finavia’s Pasi Laurinen, who is in charge of the VIP Terminal arrangements during the pandas’ arrival.
- For the airport, the pandas’ aircraft is almost like any cargo plane
Helsinki Airport wants to ensure that the pandas travel through the airport as smoothly as possible.
“Technically, this is almost like any cargo delivery. The aircraft will land at the airport, transporting animals,” says Helsinki Airport’s Vice President Heini Noronen-Juhola. “At the same time, it is truly a unique situation that these pandas are arriving in Finland: The diplomatic relations and media attention make it a special occasion. We want everything to be better than perfect.”
The logistics of the pandas’ arrival have been carefully planned by Finavia, cargo company DHL, ground handling company Swissport Cargo, as well as representatives from China and Ähtäri Zoo. It’s important, for instance, that the aircraft and the truck transporting the pandas to Ähtäri can be parked close to the VIP terminal so that the delivery is as fast and comfortable as possible for the pair.
After landing, the pandas will undergo a health check by a border veterinarian – just like any other animal arriving in Finland from non-EU countries – to make sure they are in good health after the trip.
The airport has prepared a room in the VIP terminal for the press, who will be able to photograph the pandas in their delivery boxes. Also present will be Chinese ambassador to Finland Chen Li and Finnish Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Jari Leppä.
- The pandas will fly with their caretakers – and 100 kilos of bamboo
Pyry and Lumi’s entourage on the plane includes Ähtäri Zoo’s panda caretaker Anna Palmroth, veterinarian Heini Niinimäki and intendant Mauno Seppäkoski as well as a Chinese vet and animal caretaker.
Palmroth, who will be Pyry and Lumi’s main caretaker in Ähtäri, has already spent several weeks in China bonding with the two pandas.
“They are lovely, charming and playful animals,” comments Palmroth from China. “Also very different from each other – the male is more active and the female calmer. For instance, just this morning, they had great fun playing in the fresh snow that had fallen during the night.”
Palmroth has already been preparing Pyry and Lumi for the trip and their new life in Finland.
“I feed them, play with them, and train them for the travel, perform health checks and other normal routines. They are getting to know me as their caretaker. Currently, we are familiarizing them with the delivery boxes that they will be in during the trip to Finland,” Palmroth explains. “The pandas are rewarded with food and affection when they go into the boxes.”
Through positive reinforcement, the animals become familiar with the boxes and won’t be stressed in them during their journey. Pyry and Lumi will not be sedated during the flight, but can eat, sleep and move around freely. Their welfare will, of course, be closely monitored.
“The giant panda is a fairly calm and adaptable species; usually it doesn’t get too stressed during travel,” says Seppäkoski, who has been involved in numerous wild animal deliveries. “Pandas don’t fuss much, but just chew on bamboo and wait patiently for the next step.”
Pyry and Lumi will have about 100 kilos of bamboo to chew on during their flight and on the road trip from China to Ähtäri, as well as some panda cakes made of corn, soy and other plant-based ingredients.
- A panda house awaits Pyry and Lumi in Ähtäri – panda babies on the way in a few years?
After their arrival in Ähtäri, the pandas will be quarantined for at least one month, and the public will be able to see them at the earliest in late February.
Pyry and Lumi will move into a specially designed panda house. They will both have a bit under 200 square meters of indoor space and a 4000 square meter outdoor garden. The conditions in Ähtäri resemble the natural habitat for great pandas.
“We’ve built an environment that resembles the Himalayan mountain habitat as closely as possible. Indoors, there’s a small stream, and plants like cycads and clivias; outdoors, there are pine trees, rocks, grass, climbing frames and a large water system,” describes Seppäkoski.
“When the Chinese visited the panda house, they said it was one of the best they had seen outside China,” Palmroth says.
Ähtäri häs been considered an ideal location for pandas, climate-wise, as cold and snowy winters are typical in the great pandas’ natural habitat. The hope is that the two pandas will mate and make babies in Ähtäri. If they should breed successfully, the panda babies will be sent back to China and be part of a program that reintroduces pandas back to nature. Pyry and Lumi are also part of a larger panda conservation program. The majority of the money paid to China for their rental will be used to protect the great panda and its natural habitat.
It is, however, not a certainty that the pandas will be able to breed. For the most part, Pyry and Lumi will spend time in their own quarters as the panda is a solitary creature excluding the female’s short mating time that only occurs once a year for about 24 to 48 hours.
The now 3-year-old Lumi should become fertile in a few years, after which, there are great hopes of seeing little pandas in Ähtäri.
Photo by: Jukka Salo