CHONGQING, China - For the last four days in China, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had his eye on trade.
But for a few minutes Saturday, Harper had eyes for only one thing: a panda.
Looking relaxed and happy at the end of a whirlwind trip that took him through three cities, Harper arrived at the Chongqing zoo to announce that the Chinese government is loaning Canada a pair of pandas for the next 10 years.
The Toronto and Calgary zoos will each house the pandas for five years, at a cost of over $1 million a year.
They say they'll recoup the costs by increased visits but what's also important is to be able to highlight conservation to Canadians.
"The pandas are the rockstar of the animal kingdom," said Clement Lanthier, president of the Calgary Zoo.
While the deal for the loan has been in the works for two years, it was the improved political relationship between Canada and China that finally sealed it.
"Canada and China enjoy a strategic partnership based on
mutual respect and collaboration," Harper told a crowd assembled at the zoo.
"Our mutual love for pandas is one more example of the goodwill that underlies the relationship between Canada and China."
Behind him, one of the two pandas coming to Canada, a male named Er Shun, munched bamboo. The female panda, Ji Li is at a different zoo.
Prior to the announcement, Harper and his wife Laureen had an opportunity to hold a baby panda.
The four-month-old squirmed in Laureen Harper's arms as the prime minister petted him gently behind the neck.
The Chinese tradition of deploying the bears to countries with whom they have good diplomatic relations dates back more than 1,300 years, and was revived by the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s.
The pandas are expected to arrive at the Toronto zoo early next year.
During the 1980s the Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg zoos all hosted giant pandas for short-term stays.