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ATTRACTION: Toronto Zoo welcomes pandas for 5-year stay

Female panda Er Shun eats bamboo at the Panda House at the Chongqing Zoo in Chongqing, China, on Feb. 11, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A popular summer tourist spot will be even more of a draw this summer as visitors get their first chance to see two much-celebrated, and furry, Chinese ambassadors.

The Toronto Zoo said it expects almost a million people to visit its new giant panda exhibit and watch inhabitants Er Shun and Da Mao as they sleep, chew bamboo, and lumber around their temporary new home.

Click here for our full coverage of the panda visit.

The buildup to their arrival two months ago, via a FedEx plane, began in February of last year, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in China for a three-day tour.

After more than a decade of negotiations with zoo officials, the Chinese agreed to loan Canada the pandas for 10 years — splitting the visit equally between Toronto and Calgary, unless the pair manages to breed.

The ensuing preparations and the pandas’ royal welcome have been wholeheartedly enthusiastic.

“The pandas are a token of friendship from the Chinese people and many Chinese are deeply moved by the exceptional attention and thoughtful care towards the two pandas from across Canada,” Chinese Ambassador Zhang Junsai said at the exhibit’s opening ceremony last month.

“All these make me a little bit worried that Er Shun and Da Mao may one day … seek Canadian citizenship rather than go back to China upon the completion of their tour.”

The zoo opened its panda exhibit to much fanfare on the May long weekend and said it expects 900,000 extra visitors over the five-year stay, although the Pan Am Games in 2015 will bring in some of those tourists.

A record 1.9 million people passed through the zoo’s gates in 1985, when the zoo hosted giant pandas for only three months.

“This is one of the most highly anticipated exhibit openings in Toronto Zoo history and we are very proud and honoured to be hosting giant pandas Er Shun and Da Mao,” said zoo CEO John Tracogna.

“We are anticipating an overwhelming reaction to this beautiful and unique exhibit.”

But the zoo houses 5,000 other animals in geographically-themed pavilions — from the penguins and Western Lowland gorillas in the African exhibits to the Tundra Trek’s polar bears — all worth viewing in their own right.

Other highlights at the zoo this summer:

Serengeti Bush Camp
Kids camp overnight at the zoo while getting a tour of the African Savanna and Rainforest Pavilion. Includes stories by a campfire, dinner at Simba Safari Lodge Restaurant and the chance to sleep under the stars in authentic African tents.
Seven days a week through Aug. 31. $87-$108

Discovery Zone
Children can burrow through a simulated prairie dog tunnel, dig for dinosaur eggs or go birdwatching in the zoo’s giant aviary — all while learning about Canadian habitats — at the Kids Zoo. Other parts of the Discovery Zone include a water park and new amphitheatre.
May 1- Sept. 2, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.

Seafood for Thought fundraiser
Ted Corrado of the Drake Hotel and Jason Bangarter of Luma are among the city’s culinary elite on hand for an outdoor sustainable seafood tasting and silent auction, in support of zoo projects to protect wildlife and natural habitats.
June 30, 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m. $85 per person; $150 per couple

Giant panda facts:

  • Er Shun (female) means “double smoothness” and Da Mao (male) means “first born.”
  • In the wild, a panda’s diet is 99 per cent bamboo. The rest is made up of other grasses, small rodents and musk deer fawns. At the Toronto Zoo the pandas will eat bamboo, biscuits, dog chow, apples and vitamins.
  • Pandas have the digestive system of carnivores, not herbivores, so most of the bamboo they eat passes quickly through their digestive tracts. To get enough nutrients, they spend 10 to 16 hours a day foraging and eating. The rest of their time is mostly spent sleeping and resting.
  • Pandas don’t hibernate like other bears because their food source, bamboo, is available year-round and their diet doesn’t give them enough fat to carry them through a long period.
  • Female pandas are only receptive to breeding once a year for a 24- to 72-hour period
  • Pandas are born pink, hairless, blind and 1/900th the size of their mothers (about the size of a stick of butter)
  • If two cubs are born the mother will only look after one of them, likely because she is can’t suckle both. In captivity, keepers will help raise twin cubs by leaving one cub with the mother and switching it with the other every few days.
  • In the past the black and white markings on giant pandas may have helped them to blend into their snowy and rocky surroundings and avoid predators.
  • Pandas have broad, flat molars and an enlarged wrist bone — which works like an opposable thumb — to hold, crush and eat bamboo.
  • Pandas make a bleating sound like lambs and kids (young goats).