Belgian zoo owner set to host Chinese pandas

Updated: 2013-09-20 00:11

By Tuo Yannan and Fu Jing in Brussels (China Daily)

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Belgian zookeeper Eric Domb and his team have been in state of what could be described as pandemonium for months as they prepare for two pandas scheduled to arrive in spring.

Domb said he is working round the clock to build a cozy home for the "China ambassadors" and guarantee that the special guests lack for nothing over the next 15 years, the allotted time span agreed by the governments in September for the animals to stay in Belgium.

Belgian zoo owner set to host Chinese pandas

Eric Domb, president of Belgian zoo Pairi Daiza, with pictures of his VIP guests. The very important pandas are scheduled to arrive at the zoo in spring. [Fu Jing/China Daily ]

"We feel huge responsibility to host them and see them breed," Domb said in his office as he held photos of the four-year-old pandas, Hao Hao and Xing Hui.

The zoo, Pairi Daiza, which means enclosed garden in ancient Persian, is situated about 60 km south of Brussels.

A classic Chinese garden, the biggest in Europe, has been built inside its walls and the panda venue, including day and night chambers, is located inside the garden and covers 6,500 square meters. Their night chambers cover 17 square meters. Their private chambers give each panda about 40 square meters.

Chinese and local workers are busy constructing the panda home, which is set to cost 8 million euros ($10.7 million) and it is expected to be finished by December.

Domb said he plans to plant four hectares of bamboo outside the zoo to feed the pandas though he will also import bamboo from France and Spain.

Catering to the new guests is not a cheap prospect. The zoo will spend several hundred thousand dollars on them annually, making them the most expensive animals in the zoo.

"It used to be elephants," Domb explained, "but the cost of one panda equals 20 elephants, approximately."

Domb said the team in charge of panda care will be Chinese as he believes that their expertise is the best way to ensure the pandas are properly looked after.

"Of course, there may be people who are jealous and want to work with them, but it is such a huge responsibility to keep them alive and give them every chance to breed. They must not die unless age is a factor," he said.

There are 15 overseas zoos hosting pandas. The first pair of pandas China gave to another country as a symbol of friendship was to the United States in 1972 after Richard Nixon’s historic visit.

"Since both are four years old, they should be able to breed in about two years," said Domb. A team of Chinese experts will be with the pandas to provide any help required in this process.

It is notoriously difficult for pandas to conceive. The hosting agreement stipulates that if a baby panda comes along it will spend the first four years with its parents and then be sent to China.

Domb originally thought of hosting pandas in 2006 but there was no progress until last September when negotiations officially started.

He said his love story with China and pandas started when he was a child. He even shares some panda traits; he is a vegetarian.

"This animal is a symbol of peacefulness. The panda is like a vegetarian bear, although it is very strong and powerful, it only eats bamboo," he explained.

"To tell you the truth, I used to be a meat eater, but I don’t eat meat anymore. We have something else in common too; we love bamboo."

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