Coronavirus could starve Canada zoo's pandas as bamboo supply chain snaps

By David Agren

A Canadian zoo is warning that its giant pandas could go without fresh bamboo as the Covid-19 pandemic limits imports from China and domestic supplies run short.

Calgary Zoo said in May that it planned to return Er Shun and Da Mao to China, after coronavirus disrupted bamboo supply lines, but on Tuesday the zoo announced that due to the pandemic, it was still unable to secure travel permits.

Giant pandas consume 40kg of fresh bamboo daily and the plant comprises 99% of their diet – raising concerns about keeping the animals fed.

“Our No 1 concern is access to fresh bamboo on a daily basis,” said Greg Royer, chief operating officer of the Calgary Zoo. “We can’t live with no guarantee … You can’t say: we may be able to feed the pandas.”

The zoo is currently sourcing bamboo from the neighbouring province of British Columbia, but that source will stop being available in September.

Complicating matters further, the Chinese government has not facilitated the paperwork for relocating the pandas due to tightening import rules imposed during the pandemic and a lack of quarantine space, according to the zoo.

“We believe the best and safest place for Er Shun and Da Mao is where bamboo is abundant and easy to access,” said the zoo’s president and CEO, Clément Lanthier, in a statement. “The continued delays in international permitting are putting the health and welfare of these two beautiful giant pandas in jeopardy.”

The pandas arrived in the western Canadian city of Calgary in March 2018 from a zoo in Toronto as part of a 10-year agreement between Canada and China, which was to run through 2023.

Before the pandemic, the zoo sourced bamboo in China and was able to have it delivered “within 48 to 60 hours” of being harvested, said Royer. “We never fed the pandas [bamboo] that was more than six or seven days old. That’s the kind of fresh they need.”

If the pandas are unable to be relocated to China, “it gets much more difficult and unpredictable,” Royer said. A zoo employee will be assigned to work full-time “making sure that we have bamboo coming in”.