TWO giant pandas have been greeted by a crowd of thousands as they arrived at the world-renowned Beauval Zoo in the heart of the chateaux of the Loire.
Hours earlier Yuan Zi et Huan Huan had touched down at Paris Charles-de-Gaulle airport after an 11-hour flight from China.
Chinese ambassador Kong Quan said the two three-year-old pandas had had a "pleasant flight" and added: "They appreciated the transport, they ate a lot and they have started to learn French..."
They are the first pandas to arrive in France since China presented two to President Pompidou in 1973. They are on a 10-year loan to France and follow top-level discussions between President Sarkozy and Chinese leader Hu Jintao.
They will live at Beauval - in the Loir-et-Cher town of Saint-Aignan between Tours and Vierzon - which has a reputation for conservancy and working with endangered species. The zoo will be working closely with Chinese specialists to investigate the animals' reproduction - Huan Huan, the female, is only fertile for two or three days in a year.
Beauval - classed by Forbes Traveler as one of the 15 most beautiful zoos in the world - contains around 4,600 animals. It has separate zones for its collection of endangered species and has white tigers and white lions, rhinos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans, manatees and koalas as well as one of Europe's biggest sea lion pools.
The last census in 2005 found only 1,600 giant pandas living in the wild and Beauval is one of just 16 zoos outside China to have pandas. The other European zoos with giant pandas are Berlin, Edinburgh, Madrid and Vienna.