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Two pandas arrive in France for 10-year stay

Reuters/Benoit Tessier

Two Chinese pandas landed in Paris Sunday on loan to a French zoo. The Panda Express, a Boeing 777 specially decorated with a panda motif, carried them from Sichuan province to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, where staff from Beauval zoo met them.

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It took years of top-level negotiations between Paris and Beijing to bring Huan Huan (Happy) and Yuan Zi (Chubby) to France.

Just 1,600 pandas remain in the wild in China, with some 300 others in captivity worldwide, mostly in China, which employs "panda diplomacy” to win the good graces of other countries.

They are the first pandas sent here since 1973, when Yen Yen, who went on to live until 2000, was given to then-president Georges Pompidou along with another panda, which died shortly after arriving.

Although pandas are notoriously reluctant to reproduce, Huan Huan and Yuan Zi were specially selected for their breeding potential by their keepers in the city of Chengdu.

They are to spend 10 years at Beauval zoo, two hours’ drive from Paris in the Loire region.

But the European public will have to wait until 11 February to get their first glimpse of the bears in their specially created 2.5-hectare enclosure, which is decorated with Chinese-style pagodas and marble lion statues.

A deal on the endangered animals, famous for their reluctance to breed, was to have been announced at the G20 summit in the French resort of Cannes last November, but had to be delayed due to the eurozone crisis.

David Algranti, who was named a "pambassador" in 2010 and spent several weeks as the bears' official guardian in Chengdu, was one of a handful of people given privileged access to the quarantined pandas.

"France is lucky to be getting these two, they are particularly lovable, and very good-looking," he said. "Huan Huan sticks out her tongue a lot and Yuan Zi loves to climb, he's quite sporty."

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