KUALA LUMPUR // Malaysia welcomed a pair of pandas from China on Wednesday, after a month’s delay caused by tensions over the Malaysian airliner which disappeared in March with mostly Chinese passengers aboard.
The eight-year-old pandas – a female named Feng Yi (Mandarin for Phoenix) and a male, Fu Wa (Lucky) – arrived in Kuala Lumpur to an honour guard of water cannon, after a flight from Chengdu in southwestern China where they were bred.
Feng Yi was briefly shown to the media before being whisked off to the national zoo with her prospective mate.
She initially retreated into her cage when exposed to daylight and the clatter of camera shutters, but soon gained courage and curiously peered between the bars.
At the opening ceremony, Malaysia’s environment minister, Palanivel Govindasamy, said he hopes the arrival of the “precious icons of China” would “contribute to building an everlasting friendship and sustainable cooperation” between Malaysia and China.
The two countries agreed in 2012 that China would send the giant pandas for a 10-year stay as part of Beijing’s “panda diplomacy”.
The pair were due to arrive on April 16 but Mr Palanivel said at the time that before dispatching them, Beijing was awaiting further details on Flight MH370, which vanished on March 8 with 239 people, including 153 Chinese on board.
The airline and Malaysia’s government have come under withering public criticism in China due to the loss of lives, and the failure to find the plane that was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The Boeing 777 jet is believed to have veered far off course for reasons unknown, before crashing into the remote Indian Ocean, where efforts are under way to locate its flight data recorders on the seabed.
Chinese relatives of the missing passengers have accused the Malaysian flag carrier and authorities of bungling the response to the plane’s disappearance and withholding information.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Chinese authorities allowed relatives to stage a rare public protest at Malaysia’s embassy in Beijing, suggesting official support for the criticism.
Malaysia’s image in China took another blow in April, when a Chinese tourist was kidnapped in an eastern state by gunmen believed to be Islamic militants from the southern Philippines. Malaysia has said ransom negotiations are under way.
China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner and Kuala Lumpur has been courting closer ties with Beijing, declaring 2014 as “China-Malaysia Friendship Year” to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
The pandas have already caused controversy in Malaysia over plans to house them in a special US$7.7 million facility at the national zoo in Kuala Lumpur.
Environmentalists have said the money would have been better spent on conservation efforts for Malaysia’s threatened wildlife.
Mr Palanivel said the pandas would be given time to acclimatise before being shown to the public from the end of June.
* Agence France-Presse