KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – China has postponed the transfer of two giant pandas to Malaysia out of respect for the families of passengers on missing Flight 370, a government minister said Friday.
The Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared on March 8 had 239 people on board, 153 of them Chinese.
The pandas were originally due in Malaysia next Wednesday. Natural Resources and Environment Minister G.Palanivel said the pandas are expected to arrive before May 31 when the two countries mark their 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties, though no firm date has been set.
“Because of the MH370 incident, the arrival of the pandas has been postponed,” he said.
Palanivel said the delay was made to respect the feelings of families as the search for the plane reaches a crucial stage. Sounds detected in the southern Indian Ocean since last Saturday are suspected to be the locator beacons on the jet’s black boxes, raising hopes searchers are close to finding the plane and solving the mystery of why it disappeared.
“During this difficult time, it seems inappropriate to arrange for the sending off and the arrival of the pandas in Malaysia,” he added.
China has long used “panda diplomacy” to make friends and influence people in other countries.
The pandas, Feng Yi and Fu Wa, are to be on loan to Malaysia for 10 years.
Malaysia has said it spent 25 million ringgit ($7.7 million) on an air-conditioned conservation complex including two bamboo fields at the national zoo outside Kuala Lumpur to house the pandas.
Some of the passengers’ relatives and other Chinese have expressed anger over Malaysia’s perceived mishandling of the plane’s disappearance. The kidnapping of a Chinese woman from a Malaysian island resort in early April was also a blow to the country’s image in China.
Tourism Minister Nazri Aziz told local media that at least 30,000 Chinese tourists have cancelled their holiday plans to Malaysia since the plane disappeared. Some 1.6 million Chinese tourists visited Malaysia last year.