The Calgary Zoo is shipping two giant pandas back to China years ahead of schedule due to difficulty obtaining bamboo amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zoo staff have struggled to import enough bamboo to feed giant pandas Er Shun and Da Mao — who are on loan to Canada from China until 2023 — due to flights being disrupted by the pandemic.
“This is too much stress on my team and on the pandas. Can you imagine not having bamboo for a few days?” zoo president and CEO Clément Lanthier told CBC News Tuesday.
“The pandas are eating almost exclusively bamboo. I need fresh bamboo being delivered twice a week.”
The charity is asking the Canadian and Chinese governments to expedite the necessary permits to ship the pandas as soon as possible.
The zoo said it expects the supply of the panda’s main food could be further disrupted by transportation struggles on very short notice, including if there is a second wave of COVID-19.
The challenges have resulted in substandard bamboo and smaller quantities already, Lanthier said. At times, the pandas refused to eat bamboo from new sources or bamboo that’s aged in transit.
“They don’t like the bamboo they get. They get fewer bamboo. The bamboo’s too dry,” Lanthier said.
“It’s too unpredictable, and I cannot manage a collection here at the zoo with that kind of uncertainty of, ‘Oh, will we be able to feed this species or that species tomorrow?’ That’s unacceptable.”
Fresh bamboo makes up nearly the entire diet of a panda. An adult panda can eat roughly 40 kilograms a day.
The zoo started the permit process to move the pandas a few weeks ago, Lanthier said, in hopes of having those approved this week.
But he said he would like to work with both governments to expedite the process.
“We have exhausted all of our capacity, and it’s too much of a risk for the welfare of the panda,” Lanthier said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Calgary Zoo was ordering loads of bamboo to be flown directly from China to Calgary.
The pandemic, however, forced the cancellations of direct flights.
WestJet then moved to ship the bamboo through Toronto, the statement from the zoo said, but flights from China to Toronto were cut back as well.
In China, the pandas will have access to fresh and local bamboo, eliminating the supply concern.
‘Extremely difficult’ to find alternatives
Lanthier said his team tried to find alternate bamboo suppliers. They encountered missed flights, bamboo sent to the wrong cities, bamboo left sitting in warehouses or at an airport, and trucking issues.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we saw the supply change,” Lanthier said. “It’s been extremely difficult.”
Members of the public will be able to send in virtual farewells to the pandas using the PandaCam.
The giant pandas were expected to stay in Canada for 10 years through an agreement with China. They arrived in 2014 to spend five years in Toronto. They had two cubs, Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, and moved to Calgary in 2018.
The cubs were later moved to China.
Lanthier said he and the staff are sad about the decision, but stressed what’s important is the animals’ welfare.
He said he encourages Calgarians and others to continue supporting the zoo and the other endangered animals in its care.
In April, the Calgary Zoo asked the public for help to feed other animals and said it was facing a financial shortfall due to the Alberta-mandated closure and a drop in donations.