Straits Times: Pandas 'should arrive by year-end'

CHENGDU: Singaporeans will have to wait a little longer to meet the pandas Kai Kai and Jia Jia, but they should be on Singapore soil by the end of the year.

Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck said yesterday that while Singapore is 'almost ready' for their arrival, it is important to allow the Chinese authorities to decide on an appropriate time for their national treasures to be flown to Singapore.
The pandas were supposed to have arrived in Singapore in March, but their new enclosure was not ready and modifications had to be made.

'Singaporeans are looking forward to the arrival of the two pandas. I hope that we can have them before the end of the year,' said Mr Teo.

He was speaking to both Singapore and Chinese media during an official visit to the panda base in Sichuan province. Mr Teo and other officials, including Mr Pang Te Cheng, Singapore's consul-general in Chengdu, were among the first Singaporeans to meet the two pandas.

The pandas are on a 10-year loan from the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA) to Singapore. The loan, a key bilateral initiative, was made official during Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to Singapore in 2009.

Singapore will be the ninth country to receive giant pandas from China. Others include the United States, Germany, Japan and Thailand.

They will be the main draw at the new $160 million River Safari, an animal attraction in Mandai slated to open in November.

A team from the CWCA visited Singapore in February and asked for changes to the $8.5 million panda enclosure. These included moving light fixtures from the side of the enclosure to the ceiling to keep them out of the pandas' reach, and adding grilles to air-conditioner ducts.

Ms Claire Chiang, chairman of River Safari's parent company Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), who made the trip to the Ya'an Bifengxia Conservation Base, said the modifications were done but she would like the experts to visit one more time before the pandas move in.

She added: 'They are very precious to China, as well as to the rest of the world. We want to be very sure and be ready that the environment is in the best state.'

Mr Li Desheng, director of the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda, said his team will take a final look at the enclosure by July before deciding on an arrival date.

Before the pandas can catch their flight sponsored by Singapore Airlines, they need to be quarantined for a month at the panda base. When they arrive in Singapore, they will be quarantined for another month before being released into the 1,225 sq m enclosure. There, they will spend up to a month getting used to it before visitors arrive.

WRS was unable to say if River Safari will still open in November if the pandas are not ready by then.

Mr Teo, calling Kai Kai and Jia Jia the River Safari's 'crown jewels', said that while they will no doubt draw tourists, the loan also strengthens the already strong ties between the two countries.

WRS will also focus on research and conservation of the pandas. Ms Chiang said Singapore will host a conference next year called the Pandamonium Conference that will gather all the countries that have received pandas from China.

The aim is to allow the countries to share findings, such as how different environments affect the behaviour of pandas and how they adapt to their new homes.

Ms Chiang said: 'This is a research project and not just another entertaining zoo animal.'