Where are they?

“Based on the experiences of neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Singapore, Malaysia will receive the pair of pandas within one year from the date of signing the agreement.”
(“Malaysia-China Sign Agreement on Loan of Giant Pandas”, BERNAMA, 15 June 2012)

It’s 15 June 2013, exactly a year since the loan was signed, so where are the pandas?

Still in China.

Looks like BERNAMA was wrong about when the giant pandas would be arriving in Malaysia; probably not the wire service’s fault but copied from an official press release.

I don’t know how long Thailand waited for its panda pair which arrived October 2003, but for Singapore, it took almost three years from the time its panda loan was announced in November 2009 to their arrival at Changi Airport on 6 September 2012.

“Thailand waited … ” gives the impression that little was done in preparation for the arrival of Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui at the Chiangmai Zoo. Actually, there was a lot done and as Singapore’s experience has shown, much time required to get it done, and done right.

A black and white to-do list

Here is a partial checklist of what needs to be done ahead of the arrival of giant pandas in a host country:

  • choose the right location
  • draw up designs for the exhibit
  • have the designs approved
  • find the right company to build the exhibit
  • have a team come over from the ‘mother’ panda base to inspect and approve the exhibit
  • send local keepers for training at the ‘mother’ base
  • sort out the panda pair’s bamboo supplies

And most importantly:

  • get the budget approved

At what stage is Malaysia in its preparations for the arrival of its panda pair?

As you read this, the Malaysian giant panda exhibit is being built, but not where it was originally slated to be. Even before they arrive, the Malaysian panda pair has ‘moved house’.

Change of Address

From the same BERNAMA news report quoted earlier, “Najib had said the two pandas would be placed at the Wetland Park here which would be installed with infrastructure similar to the natural habitat of the giant pandas.”

A day after the loan was signed and announced, a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (who’s now the Minister of Tourism and Culture) was featured in the local media defending the choice of the park, citing its location in the country’s administration centre, and because “people should have access to the bears and we chose the Wetland Park because the place is easy for the people to go.” (“Nazri explains why pandas will be in Putrajaya”, The Star, 16 June 2012)

Seven months later in January 2013, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE) held a press conference to announce that the two pandas will be housed at Zoo Negara (the National Zoo), a decision made by the Malaysian Cabinet on 19 December 2012.

That’s one item on the list we got wrong but managed to put right.

Lovely but wrong place

In defence of the Wetland Park Putrajaya, it is a lovely place. It’s just the wrong place, and not just because of its location.

In anticipation of regular visits with the Malaysian panda pair upon their arrival, I visited the park twice – in September 2012 and again in December 2012 – to familiarise myself with the route (it’s 44km from where I live). I was quite taken by its greenery which reminded me of Bifengxia Panda Base, where our pair will be coming from.

But there’s little else at the park. Definitely no support facilities, which would have to be built, which would then increase the costs if the original plan to house the giant pandas there had remained. Increased costs: I believe this is the real reason for the relocation to Zoo Negara which has the necessary support facilities that just need to be improved and upgraded.

Exhibit Under Construction

Since the change of location, I have visited Zoo Negara twice – in early May and two days ago on 13 June – to monitor the progress of the exhibit’s construction. I plan to continue these ‘site inspection’ visits on a monthly basis until it is completed and approved.

I was really surprised by the progress between the two visits; in just one month and five days, the site now has two up-and-coming structures, one of them looking very similar to the description in the New Straits Times article dated 2 May 2013 of a “unique complex shaped like a coliseum … ” An aside – that same article (link at the end of this post) also shows a view of the construction site very different from what I photographed around the same time, which may be due to a different and better angle given to the newspaper’s photographer, but I digress.

The question remains – when will our pandas arrive?

Following the optimistic initial estimate of “within one year from the date of signing the agreement”, the next update on the Malaysian panda project reported that “construction of the enclosure at the Putrajaya Wetlands park is slated to begin within three months and should be completed by the end of next year.” (“Pandas’ enclosure to cost RM30m”, The Malay Mail, 17 July 2012)

At the January 2013 press conference announcing the change of location to Zoo Negara, the NRE had said construction on the giant panda exhibit area would begin in June and was expected to be completed by April of the following year.

According to these reports, the Malaysian giant panda exhibit will be completed sometime next year, which means we can expect to welcome our panda pair sometime in 2014.

However, at the handing over of the project from the Department of Irrigation and Drainage in mid April, the NRE Minister was “happy to announce that the giant pandas will be here by December, earlier than the mid-2014 projection.” (“Giant pandas to be in Zoo Negara by year-end”, New Straits Times, 13 April 2013)

Apparently, this is being done at the request of our Prime Minister. However, the only references I have of this are from news sites from China; I have been unable to find any references in the Malaysian media, which I take as the primary sources of reference for this post, as well as future posts on this site.

Thus, one year on since the signing of Malaysia’s giant panda loan agreement with China, the exhibit is being built in Zoo Negara, but will the panda pair be here at the end of the year?

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