Giant pandas bond China, Belgium in biodiversity cooperation
Friendship bridge
Published: Dec 06, 2022 06:00 PM Updated: Dec 06, 2022 05:56 PM
Giant panda Bao Mei (R) plays with its mother Hao Hao at the Pairi Daiza zoo in Brugelette, Belgium, Aug. 8, 2021. Giant panda twins Bao Di and Bao Mei celebrated their two-year birthday on Sunday at the Pairi Daiza zoo. (Photo: Xinhua)

Giant panda Bao Mei (R) plays with its mother Hao Hao at the Pairi Daiza zoo in Brugelette, Belgium, Aug. 8, 2021. Giant panda twins Bao Di and Bao Mei celebrated their two-year birthday on Sunday at the Pairi Daiza zoo. (Photo: Xinhua)

 The giant panda is a powerful symbol when it comes to species conservation. In Belgium, a zoo hosting five giant pandas has worked with Chinese animal experts on panda breeding for many years epitomizes the cooperation between the two countries in protecting animals and preserving biodiversity.

Family of five pandas

In February, 2022, the Pairi Daiza Zoo in southwest Belgium's Brugelette municipality hammered out an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association to allow 6-year-old Tian Bao, the very first giant panda born in the European country, to continue to stay on there, making the zoo one of the few in the world to host as many as five pandas.

Back in 1987, giant pandas gained more fans in Belgium when the country received two from southwest China's Sichuan Province for a months-long sojourn. Numerous locals flocked to the garden where they were being hosted to catch a glimpse.

Twenty-seven years later, another panda couple named Xing Hui and Hao Hao arrived in Brussels in line with a 15-year giant panda cooperation agreement signed between the two countries. The number of visits to the zoo in 2014 reached nearly 2 million.

Before their arrival, the Pairi Daiza Zoo specially built for the pandas a 5,300-square-meter habitat designed to mimic certain features from their original home in Sichuan, and dispatched staff to the Chinese center to learn how to care for pandas and prepare feed for them. China also sent two breeders to help feed the pandas in Belgium.

By now, the pair has had three cubs in total, with their first, Tian Bao, born in 2016, and twins Bao Di and Bao Mei born in 2019.

"Every day is different and you never get bored looking after these extraordinary animals. And this pleasure is increased tenfold when we can be present at the birth of a baby panda, as was the case with Tian Bao in June 2016," said Robin, a panda keeper shown on the official website of the zoo that didn't provide his full name.

The ever-growing panda family marked a friendship between the Chinese and Belgian people, and set a new example for bilateral cooperation on biodiversity conservation.

Joint efforts

Breeding giant pandas in captivity is, however, incredibly difficult, Xing Hui and Hao Hao were able to reproduce thanks to joint efforts made by zoologists from China and Belgium, which is widely viewed as a miracle.

In February 2016, a team of Chinese experts arrived in Belgium to assist the breeding process of the pandas, in cooperation with their colleagues from the zoo and Belgium's Veterinary Faculty of the University of Ghent. Four months later, Tian Bao was delivered, whose name means a treasure from heaven in Chinese.

Afterward, Bao Di and Bao Mei, both conceived through a process of artificial insemination carried out with the help of Chinese specialists, were born in August 2019. At the 2019 Giant Panda Global Awards ceremony, the panda siblings won the "Panda Cub of the Year" Gold Award. "If China hadn't gone to great lengths to protect giant pandas in the last few decades, it would be difficult to see this rare species now. Giant pandas are not only for people to watch, but more importantly, they are beneficial to biodiversity development," said Jeroen Jacobs, founder of the Giant Panda Global website, the organizer of the award.

Over more than eight years, cooperation between Belgian and Chinese specialists have made positive progress in panda breeding, feeding, and management of cubs, health monitoring, personnel training, scientific research, and public education.

For instance, Jella Wauters, a veterinarian at the University of Ghent, is heading a study entitled "Metabolomics in the Giant Panda: unraveling the reproductive biology" for the Pairi Daiza Foundation.

The aim of her research is to allow scientists to predict the fertility period of a female giant panda, and ultimately, to not only increase the chances of reproduction in the zoos and breeding centers in China, but also in nature.

At the three-year-old birthday celebration held for Bao Di and Bao Mei on August 6, Chinese Ambassador to Belgium Cao Zhongming said that the population of giant pandas worldwide has increased to more than 2,500, and the threat level facing the species has been downgraded from "critically endangered" to "vulnerable."

During the event jointly hosted by the Chinese Embassy in Belgium, Pairi Daiza Zoo, and the China Cultural Center in Brussels, Tommy Leclercq, governor of Hainaut Province where the zoo is located, spoke highly of China's achievements in animal and plant protection, expressing his hope that China and Belgium will continue to join hands in biodiversity protection.