Buoyed by support from the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Toronto Zoo has struck a task force to secure a pair of pandas.

But Coun. Paul Ainslie, who sits on the zoo board, wondered aloud at its meeting Thursday whether raising the needed funds will only divert attention from maintaining the zoo’s current exhibits and fulfilling its target of raising $250 million over the next 10 years.

Zoo board chair Raymond Cho showed his colleagues a letter from Guy Giorno, Harper’s chief of staff, who wrote: “Our government would be delighted to assist in bringing giant pandas to Canada.”

Federal support is essential to strike an agreement with the Chinese, who insist on making deals directly with other national governments.

Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti and Bill Rapley, the zoo’s executive director of conservation, education and research, recently returned from China, where they met with zoo officials and laid the groundwork for obtaining pandas.

Zoo staff who analyzed the benefits of a panda exhibit several months ago suggested the cost of a new pavilion and the stiff yearly fee charged by China might outweigh the extra revenue the pandas would pull in.

But Mammoliti said the costs could be substantially lower than what appeared in the analysis. He would like to find private sponsorship for the pandas.

“We believe a grassroots movement will start with Chinese Canadians, and we think that will secure the deal,” he told reporters.