China waves goodbye to Belgium-bound panda pair

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Giant Panda Hao Hao (L) and Xing Hui (R) (file photo)

A pair of giant pandas are leaving for Belgium Saturday, on lease from their breeding center in southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Hundreds of people attended a ceremony on Saturday morning to see the two pandas off at the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas. They are bound for a research program at Belgium's Pairi Daiza Zoo.

"On behalf of nearly 10 million Belgian people, I extend my warmest welcome to Xing Hui and Hao Hao," Eric Domb, head of the Pairi Daiza Zoo, said at the ceremony.

Hao Hao, the female, and Xing Hui, the male, are both four years old and will stay in Belgium for the next 15 years, as announced during Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo's September visit to China.

Belgian Ambassador to China Michel Malherbe granted "visas" to giant pandas at the ceremony. Malherbe said the pair symbolize China's trust in Belgium, since very few countries had received pandas for such a long period of time.

Currently, 43 panda guests, including cubs born overseas, live in 17 zoos across 12 foreign countries with established research cooperation with China. The lease term is usually 10 years.

In 1987, two giant pandas visited Belgium but only stayed a few months.

Taking the research cooperation into account, the lease term is longer than the norm because, according to the center director Zhang Hemin, the optimum reproductive age of giant pandas is between 5 and 19 years.

The people of many countries have developed deep affection towards pandas, which Zhang said is another reason for prolonging the term of the lease.

"Xing Hui and Hao Hao are the first two giant pandas China has sent overseas for nearly 15 years," Zhang said. "We hope giant pandas as goodwill ambassadors will be remembered by Belgian people and breed successfully in their country."

Eric Domb said the Belgians are crazy about giant pandas. All people and media are talking about them.

Several days ago, the Belgian Prime Minister announced that he would meet these Chinese "VIPs" in the airport. Brussels airport has even told panda fans not to go there because "they may not see pandas even through a telescope."

Veterinarian Tim Bouts from Pairi Daiza came to Chengdu a week ago to meet Xing Hui and Hao Hao. He has been briefed on their quirks of diet and is up to date on panda health matters.

Xing Hui and Hao Hao will travel to Belgium on a charted DHL aircraft, where they can enjoy enough space and food.

The aircraft, equipped with advanced medical facilities, will carry nearly 100 kilograms of bamboo and two Chinese experts will pander to pandas' every whim onboard.

"We will give our full support to giant panda protection cause and promise to take care of them," Eric Domb said in Chinese.

The chartered flight will take off from the Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport late Saturday afternoon.

Hao Hao and Xing Hui are expected to arrive in Brussels on Sunday, via Bahrain, and make their debut in this April.

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