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Belgian zoo owner hopes to help strengthen friendship with China

By MO JINGXI | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-02-08 10:01

Snow bears are pictured with snow on their faces at the Pairi Daiza zoo in Brugelette, Belgium, Jan 18, 2024. [Photo/Agencies]

About 60 kilometers south of Brussels, Belgium, a privately-owned wildlife park called Pairi Daiza is home to five giant pandas that live in its Chinese garden and are the star attractions for visitors.

Eric Domb, founder and president of Pairi Daiza, said the five pandas have thousands of fans. "When we had to cancel the birthday celebrations for the giant pandas due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many visitors felt deeply saddened," he said.

Domb mentions a "crazy" visitor who calls himself Papi Panda, meaning Grandpa Panda in French, who even moved homes in order to be close to the giant pandas, whom he comes to see every day.

In 2014, China and Belgium embarked on a joint panda conservation cooperation and research with the arrival of Hao Hao and Xing Hui at Pairi Daiza as part of a 15-year loan agreement. In 2016, they gave birth to male cub Tian Bao, the first giant panda cub born in Belgium. In 2019, the twins — male Bao Di and female Bao Meiwere born.

"I loved China long before we got the pandas," said Domb, who has nurtured a profound affection for China for more than 50 years, ever since he was a child and his parents explained to him that the soul of Chinese culture is pursuing a harmonious life.

Domb believes that the giant pandas are actually a good way for people to begin learning about Chinese culture. "They first attract people and then invite them to step into the Chinese garden to know more about Chinese culture," he said.

With waterfalls, rocks, plants, a red-painted tea pavilion and other traditional architecture, the Chinese garden was built in 2005 and is the largest in Europe.

When President Xi Jinping visited the Chinese garden in 2014 for the inauguration of the panda enclosure, Xi and the Belgian monarch, King Philippe, jointly planted a magnolia tree that symbolizes friendship between the two countries.

On an early June day last year, Domb came up with the idea of sending a letter to the Chinese president with a photo of the beautiful tree which was in full blossom when he had lunch with the Chinese Ambassador to Belgium Cao Zhongming and talked about the tree.

"I was totally amazed that just eight or nine days later, I received a reply from President Xi, emphasizing the efforts China has made so far toward wildlife conversation and encouraging me to reinforce the friendship between the Chinese people and the Belgians and the European people," he recalled.

According to Domb, there are two opposite strategies in wildlife conservation.

"I would say that one of these strategies is mainly the American strategy. That is to create a kind of wall between wildlife and humans. And the Chinese strategy, which is also shared in Europe by some countries like France and Belgium, is to find the best compromise," he said.

Domb said the Chinese wisdom of harmony between humanity and nature can be found in ancient Chinese poems such as the one about people in the house hearing the sound of rain falling on plantain leaves written by the Song Dynasty's famous female poet Li Qingzhao (1084-1155).

Now China is showing the world how humans and wildlife can live in harmony together as the country has a huge population of over 1.4 billion people but is also home to a great variety of wildlife, he said.

This week, Domb was presented the Chinese Government Friendship Award for his contribution to China's exchanges and cooperation with other countries.

The award winner said it is his personal wish and also a pleasure to help people discover the real China.

"When you love people and you observe that these people are not really known by your relatives, you really have the push to say, 'No, open your eyes. They are really wonderful people'," he said.

Now Domb wants to go much further by expanding the Chinese garden into an authentic ancient Chinese village where people can stay for a few nights.

"I think that if you want to give a good illustration of the philosophy of Confucius, you need to have a garden, which is the symbol of the water of nature. And you also need to have a city, a place where people live together. And this could be the village. So I think it's very interesting to show that cities can live in harmony with the natural environment," he said.

"The core message of Confucius is to live in harmony and I think that is the future," he said.

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