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By Fred Thornhill
TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada got a taste of international panda diplomacy on Monday with the arrival of two "Very Important Pandas" at the start of a 10-year loan to two Canadian zoos.
Speaking as the two giant pandas arrived in Toronto from China, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Junsai - who gave the animals the VIP designation - noted that when he started his posting in Canada two years ago, he was greeted only by the Canadian director of protocol.
But the panda pair, Er Shun, 5, and Da Mao, 4, merited a personal welcome from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who reached an agreement on the panda loan during a visit to China last year.
"I am very delighted to officially welcome to Canada ... a pair of China's national treasures," Harper said at the airport.
"China wants to be known for other than economic prowess," Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, told CTV television. "This helps serve that purpose."
Officials hope that Er Shun, who is female, and Da Mao, who is male, will mate during their five years in Toronto and five subsequent years in Calgary, Alberta, to produce the first Canadian-born panda cubs.
Any cubs would be the property of China, staying with Er Shun at least until they are one year old, and eventually going back to China - thus allowing the Chinese to maintain a virtual monopoly over the supply of giant pandas.
China has frequently loaned pandas to foreign zoos, in deals that can be lucrative to both sides. Fees paid by the host countries help fund panda research in China, but the zoos hope to recoup that and more in extra visitors.
Other costs include the vast quantities of bamboo that the two pandas will eat - they spend 10 to 16 hours a day eating 14 to 20 kg (31 to 44 lbs) of bamboo.
FedEx Corp, which flew the pandas to Canada from China, will fly in 600 to 900 kg (1,320 to 1,980 pounds) of bamboo each week from the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee because "pandas are picky eaters," it said.
(Writing by Randall Palmer; Editing by Sandra Maler)