The panda: one of nature’s cutest creations. Large and fuzzy and somewhat dozy, with a cuddlesome look and the endearing habit of eating almost nothing but bamboo. It also prefers not to engage in sexual activity. What possible damage could a panda ever do?
Well, if you’re to judge by the headlines at the end of last week, two pandas are on the verge of breaking apart the fragile construct that is Belgium. It happened thus: Both prime minister Elio Di Rupo and Flemish minister-president Kris Peeters were part of an economic visit to China. While Peeters (see p7) is usually content to return with contracts for Flemish businesses, inward investment and a bit of education and cultural exchange, the Chinese had other things in mind. Chinese premier Li Keqiang announced that China would be sending a pair of giant pandas to Belgium on loan for 15 years. The two bears will be housed in the Pairi Daiza nature park in Brugelette, a stone’s throw from the city of Mons in Wallonia.
The announcement shocked many in the animal care industry: Pairi Daiza is a commercial concern, while Antwerp Zoo is the country’s major zoological institution, supported by public funds. Di Rupo was accused of favouritism in sending the pandas – and the huge income their presence is certain to generate – to his home region. According to the world’s press, the row has created a “punch-up” (Reuters) which “aggravates Belgian tensions” (The Guardian).
As Flanders Today went to press, Belgium was still in one piece, with Peeters announcing he expected Di Rupo to “provide an explanation” for his decision. As far as Di Rupo is concerned, the pandas simply “symbolise the excellent relations between Belgium and China.”