Taiwan Prepares for Chinese Pandas

(CBS) Preparations are underway at Taipei Zoo ahead of the arrival of two giant pandas that China is giving to Taiwan in the latest sign of warming ties between the two once-bitter rivals.

Four-year old Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, whose names mean unification in Mandarin, will leave China for Taiwan on 23 December, a spokesman for the Cabinet-level Taiwan Affairs Office said on Wednesday.

Chinese state media reported the pandas will travel to Taipei Zoo with a veterinarian and a panda keeper, who will bring with them a week's supply of the pair's favorite foods, bamboo, apples and steamed cornbread.

The Taiwanese government has spent 9 (m) million US dollars building the panda exhibition house, which is expected to hold from 500 to one-thousand visitors at any time.

The zoo is expecting about six (m) million visitors next year.

Some 900 school children were invited to the zoo on Thursday to test the flow of traffic through the new panda enclosure.

Some of the young visitors waited impatiently, saying they wanted the pandas to come earlier.

A restaurant near the zoo is also trying to get a slice of the profit and has started selling "Panda Meals", with some of dishes shaped like the animal.

The giant panda is unique to China and serves as an unofficial national mascot.

Giving pandas as gifts has political overtones and China regularly sends the animals abroad as a sign of warming diplomatic relations or to mark a breakthroughs in ties.

Beijing first offered the pandas to Taiwan in 2005 but Taiwan's former leaders resisted the move, saying it was part of Chinese efforts to persuade the island to unify with the mainland.

Taiwan's current President Ma Ying-jeou, however, has tried to nurture closer ties with the mainland and accepted the pandas as a goodwill gesture.

China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949.

Beijing continues to claim the self-governing island as part of its territory, and has been using a blend of threats and diplomacy to try to bring Taiwan back into its fold.