Mini-squabble over giant pandas

  • Brugelette park can accommodate two pandas.
  • It’s a blow for the Antwerp Zoo.
  • Di Rupo accused of favoritism.

Zoos all over the world want to snatch up these bears. They are the magic formula for an explosion in the number of visitors. Very few, however, are chosen. Chinese authorities only give the right to accommodate one of their giant pandas to a tiny number of facilities. In Belgium, the major parks, Pairi Daiza in Brugelette and the Antwerp Zoo, have been dreaming of hosting two of these animals for some time. For now, the Walloon park has the upper hand over its Flemish competitor.

During prime minister Elio Di Rupo’s trip to China this week, Chinese authorities may give the green light for the transfer of two pandas to the shadow of Cambron Abbey. “It’s just a possibility,” a member of the prime minister’s entourage told us. A conclusion will only be reached after the usual long negotiations needed to obtain a loan of pandas.

Back in Belgium, the issue is causing a stir. Elio Di Rupo, a French-speaker from Mons, lives only about 20 km as the crow flies from Brugelette. That’s all it took for a Flemish nationalist deputy from Antwerp, Zuhal Demir, to share with the press his “impression that Elio Di Rupo used diplomatic means to push a zoological park near” his city.

The Flemish minister president, Kris Peeters (CD&V), was also present in China. His region subsidizes the Antwerp Zoo via tourism and historic preservation policies, and he indicated that he would demand “an explanation” from the federal prime minister.

It’s a significant disappointment for the Antwerp Zoo. The venerable institution housed two pandas, Wan Wan and Xi Xi, for four months in 1987. In 2003, the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp failed miserably in its attempt to house pandas on long-term loan. “We are equipped for it,” we were told. “We have a panda team. Our people have the expertise.” The zoo had written twice to the prime minister’s office about its interest in the “panda issue,” and it is shocked to have been pushed aside. On the Flemish side, the head of the office in question, Yasmine Kherbache, is also leader of the SP.A opposition on the Antwerp city council whose mayor is one Bart De Wever (N-VA). The zoo’s spokesperson said, “We do not play politics.”

The prime minister denies favoring an Hainaut-based French-language business. “Pairi Daiza provided a very complete application to the Chinese authorities in 2012,” said Elio Di Rupo’s spokesperson. “The Antwerp Zoo did not. We only give our diplomatic support once an application has been submitted. At this stage there is only one. A Flemish prime minister would have pushed Pairi Daiza’s application in the same way and, if there had been another application, of course we would have supported it.” Someone close to the situation revealed that, for Pairi Daiza, there is a risk that the window could close after the 2014 federal elections.

It remains to be seen if the issue has been closed. The Chinese authorities’ response is never certain. It could (or could not) happen during Di Rupo’s visit with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang on Wednesday. However strong Pairi Daiza’s application to the “panda base” in Bifengxia in Sechuan province may be, the conclusion will be a surprise. In Brugelette, where the one-million-visitor mark was crossed for the first time, the “single Chinese procedure” was followed “scrupulously.” They are thrilled to be able to welcome the extraordinary animal in “the largest” and “most beautiful classical Chinese gardens” ever built outside China.

MICHEL DE MUELENAERE

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