Calgary's Pandas are Getting Desperate. They Need a Flight Home.

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Er Shun at the Chonqing Zoo in 2012; finding food for the picky pandas at the Calgary Zoo has become very challenging, thanks to the pandemic (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Da Mao and Er Shun, the Calgary Zoo’s two giant pandas, are eating their way through a shrinking domestic bamboo supply at a rate of 40 kg a day—each. That demand overwhelms the typical farm in British Columbia, where most of Canada’s bamboo is harvested. “If we cut all we have on our property, we could probably feed those two pandas for a week,” says Merle Box, who runs Bamboo Ranch on Salt Spring Island with her husband, Doug.

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But sourcing bamboo has clearly become a costly dilemma. Several farms on Vancouver Island and across B.C.’s Lower Mainland told Maclean’s they had no clue who had the crop scale necessary to satisfy the pandas’ appetites. Tim Smalley at B.C. Island Bamboo says the Toronto Zoo came calling when Da Mao and Er Shun were first on the way to Canada in 2013. That zoo even offered to fly out to Comox, near Smalley’s place, to pick up the rare grass if his bid was successful. But the farm was simply too small—far short of the minimum four hectares necessary to produce enough grub for the greedy giants—not to mention the refrigeration space required to keep it all fresh. (Toronto eventually inked a deal with the Memphis Zoo, which had planted a massive farm that also fed its own pandas.)

Pandas, Smalley was told, are “only fond of the very tips” of the bamboo, which harvesters cut by reaching to the top of the plant’s hollow culms (or stems)— as high as 12 m off the ground. The notoriously picky eaters, who can spend half the day feeding, also produce immense piles of food waste.

Kristin Mayo at Bamboo World, which counts the Calgary Zoo among a list of clients on its website, says her family’s 1.2-hectare farm in Chilliwack, B.C., couldn’t meet the demand sustainably, and she isn’t sure who in Canada could. “As far as I’m aware, we’re the biggest bamboo farm in Canada,” she says, adding she might give the zoo a call. (The New Yorker recently reported the zoo’s emergency supplier was in Victoria; Steve Vaughan, who operates Victoria Bamboo, says the zoo did get in touch—but he could barely keep up with existing demand and had to turn them down.)

Anna Foleen, a consultant at Bamboo Garden in North Plains, Ore., offers up a promising, if improbable, solution to Calgary’s zookeepers. She says bamboo products that cross the border need to be fumigated, an export prerequisite that would make the bamboo toxic to the pandas. (Toronto’s deal with Memphis was possible thanks to special FedEx shipments.) But she says her outfit has supplied the Oregon Zoo with bamboo stocks to cultivate its own supply, and would do the same for the Albertans.

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Alas, bamboo stalks cannot survive a Calgary winter, and as autumn returns, even coastal B.C. farmers can only wish they were in a position to help the pandas-in-limbo. “We could be famous across the country if we could supply them,” laments Box on Salt Spring Island. “But no, we can’t.” Instead, as the frost descends on their temporary home as surely as it has on Ottawa-Beijing relations, Da Mao and Er Shun, accidental gluttons of the prairie, are in need of a minor, human-made miracle. Or at least a flight home.

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