We all know Po, the adorable giant panda who became the most unlikely Dragon Warrior in all of animated kung-fu history. But who was Master Shifu, morphologically speaking? And what’s that animal on the logo of your browser, Mozilla Firefox? You’ve seen the red panda represented in many forms, but you’ve never really seen it in its habitat. And you probably won’t, unless you’re ready to brave rugged mountain terrain, freezing temperatures and regular disappointment on long, arduous treks. Which is what I’m doing, as I embark on a quest to photograph the red pandas of Singalila National Park in Darjeeling district, West Bengal.
Finding a red panda a.k.a. firefox (cue realisation) in the wild is tough, hence local knowledge is essential to the mission. That’s why I’m here with the team of UNIQUES, a travel company that conducts wildlife photography tours with a focus on rarely sighted species like the red panda, fishing cat, Phyr’s leaf monkey, rufous-necked hornbill, hoolock gibbon and snow leopard. The five-hour drive from Bagdogra airport to our homestay is rich in gorgeous, green tea estates, and the rocky road on the last stretch is effectively the Indo-Nepal border–the steep, forest-covered slope on its right being Indian territory and the one on the left, Nepal. At an altitude of over 2,900m, our homestay, Habre’s Nest (habre is Nepali for red panda), is on the left side of the road so it falls in the neighbouring country. It’s one of the two houses that make up Kaiakatta village. Night falls early here, aided by clouds that swallow the sun before the mountains can. It’s 5pm and the birds are already home.
I wake early to the strumming of guitar strings (‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’) and the aroma of authentic tea. Founded by naturalist Shantanu Prasad and wildlife photographer Shivang Mehta, UNIQUES has four field members and a staff of 15-20 locals who work as wildlife trackers. As Shambhu, a local, sings about his inability to “fire his guns”, we load up our Canons and head to work. The road to Tumling, a border outpost and popular trekking camp, is half an hour of stomach-churning torment in a 1950s Land Rover. These vintage 4x4 vehicles with an aluminium body are the only ones trusted to negotiate this rocky terrain. Our modus operandi for the hunt is to split up. Two to three teams of trackers are to explore the dense Nepal forest while our route is a relatively easier six-km trekking trail from Tumling to Gairibas. Some red pandas are known to have their territories here. Proximity to a busy trail reduces their risk of predators, I am told by locals.
The route is blanketed by a canopy of maple, oak, magnolia and other trees, with moss being a consistent feature in this rhododendron forest. Oak nuts occasionally fall upon our path, breaching the heavy silence of the jungle; maple leaves are more subtle and poetic in their descent. The moss- and lichen-covered trees dotted with red and yellow leaves make for perfect hiding territory. Every lump of moss foxes the senses–the bushy tail of a firefox would look just like that. We linger around an area where a certain one-eyed red panda is known to lurk. But the ‘Pirate’, as he’s called, eludes us today. We’re left licking our wounds at Gairibas.
We head out again after lunch, this time on the opposite site, towards a village called Kala Pokhri. A red panda was seen here in the morning but disappeared before the message could be conveyed. I had been warned: it’s an animal that is almost impossible to track down. This is not a wild cat that leaves pugmarks or scent trails on the ground. It doesn’t trigger alarm calls wherever it sets foot. It’s quiet and shy, a recluse. And it lives up to its reputation yet again.
As the last sun rays of the day kiss the snow-capped peaks of Bhutan goodnight, we call it a day.
The walk back is a long one as darkness and disappointment descend quick and heavy. The clouds have enveloped our homestay by habit, bringing the temperature down to nearly zero. Shivang screens a movie over the familiar warmth of rum and cheese-onion rings. Siberian Tiger Quest narrates the story of Park, a Korean man who spent five years in the freezing wilderness of Russia to film Siberian tigers. He spent months on end without spotting a tiger. It’s a subtle cue for hope and endurance.
The next day, the tracking teams have hungrier eyes. We choose to take another shot at the Tumling-Gairibas route. The team believes the Pirate is overdue–he hasn’t been seen for 12 days. After about an hour, I stop thinking of the firefox and start shooting the wide variety of birds found in the region, lagging behind the rest in the process. Grey-crested tit, various yuhinas, tree creeper, laughing thrush, a rarely sighted pair of tragopans–the task is so absorbing that the guide’s call takes me by surprise. It echoes with an urgency that could mean only one thing. I dart like a sprinter who’s waited on the starting blocks for days. Running 200m uphill at a high altitude is far from easy but exhaustion will have to wait for another day.
As I catch up with the others, my first cue is the telephoto lenses–they’re all focused at one spot in the trees. The Pirate hasn’t let his believers down. Lying flat on his black belly on a thick moss-covered branch, he’s almost impossible to spot from beneath. It’s only when he moves and his scarlet back catches the sun’s rays that he stands out from his habitat. His appearance is a curious mix of raccoon and bear, I think. The white and red pattern on the face is unique to him but only just. His distinguishing feature is, unfortunately, his disability. Red pandas have dark rings that emerge on their fluffy tail as they age. Pirate has 12 of these. He’s an old guy, but a tenacious one to have survived the wild with a single eye.
Climbing to the top of an oak tree, he makes us hunt for angles to get a decent picture. We witness his grace as he reaches for adjacent trees, his childlike questioning gaze and his daytime nap when the sun comes out of the clouds. Eventually, he leaves the oak for a more comfortable setting in the interiors. Red pandas are solitary, arboreal and nocturnal creatures, spending a major part of their day napping on trees. Even their scent trails–left by glands on the pads of the feet–are on treetops and impossible to follow. Although they were originally carnivorous and still retain the morphological characteristics, they have evolved to feed on a diet made up almost entirely of bamboo shoots and leaves (98 per cent). Depending on the season, they also feed on kiwis, and occasionally insects and bird eggs.
Our evening hike is on a trail that goes into Nepal behind the homestay. While the chance of encountering a red panda on a ledge-like trail is minuscule, we’re warned about it being black bear territory. The image of an eight-foot-high scratch on a tree captured earlier in the day is a warning not to be taken lightly. The landscape, however, is out of a Ruskin Bond novel. Streams trickling down the mountainside, clouds frothing in the valley below, wild red berries dotting the trail and a host of songbirds, make for a poetic evening stroll. JB, a local famous for his inclination to burst into song, answers bird-calls in his own eccentric way while Tashi, owner of the homestay and firefox expert, tells us the story of the red panda who maimed an attacking stray dog with one bite.
Pandas are regularly predated upon by dogs, besides leopards, clouded leopards and eagles. A high demand for their fur makes them a mark for poachers too. Another big threat is the spread of canine distemper. While the giant panda was taken off the endangered list recently, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) earlier this year updated the red panda’s status from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’. Owing to difficult habitat and lack of awareness, precise population data is missing, but their numbers are now estimated at fewer than 10,000 in the wild, says Damber Bista (Conservation Manager, Asia) of the Red Panda Network. Its habitat being temperate forests in the foothills of the Himalaya, the red panda is found only in Bhutan, Myanmar, China, India and Nepal, besides the ones in captivity, of course.
The next two days are dry, panda-wise. We try different trek routes and return empty-handed. The spirits that the Pirate raised have plummeted. On the last morning, teams are dispatched earlier than usual; desperation is rife. So is the stark reality of wildlife sightings–the forest is not a wishing well. As our team embarks on its final trek, I ask Shivang, “Is there hope today?” He replies in the affirmative, but it betrays uncertainty.
Barely 150 metres into the trek, Arpan, our local guide, stops in his tracks, staring intently at a tree on the opposite slope of the valley. “Panda!” It’s a hushed scream. A lump of moss seems to move on one of the top branches of a parched tree. It really is a panda! But the distance is too much and the subject is back-lit by harsh sunlight. Over the next half an hour, we trek into the dense forest, treading carefully but urgently on the greasy downhill slope, taking a few branches and bamboo hits on the face.
When we finally arrive at the tree of interest, we find him perched on a lower branch, now acutely aware of human presence. He’s a new individual, whom the team hasn’t seen before. These are exciting times! The multiple rings suggest he’s an old fellow; we decide to call him ‘Old Monk’, partly due to his demeanour and partly for our choice of celebratory drink afterwards. He treads the tree cautiously now, taking short naps while we observe and document.
While the Pirate gave me my first glimpse of a red panda, Old Monk gives me enough opportunity to frame one. After we’ve had our fill of portraits, we leave him in peace, choosing to watch him from the opposite slope of the valley as the clouds glide by between us and Old Monk. On one such misty curtain call, he vanishes. Just like the trick that appeared out of a hat, he pulls an impressive vanishing act. Poof goes the
During my various brief forays into the jungle, I’ve encountered prey-stalking tigers, charging elephants, sleepy lions and a feisty leopard guarding his kill on the top of a tree. But I know this: when all memory of adrenaline fuelled adventures is muddled by the relentless erosion of time, the sight of a curious red panda with gentle, brown eyes peering down from an elderly tree will stay with me.
The nearest airport is at Bagdogra (105km). A regular cab can take up to three hours to get to Mane Bhanjang (approx. â‚¹4,000). From here on, if you’ve signed up for the photography tour, a vintage 4x4 Land Rover takes you to Singalila National Park over a rock-strewn, steep road towards Kaiakatta (approx. â‚¹3,000). This latter half of the journey passes through some surreal landscapes, from lush tea estates on sparkling green slopes to pine forests shrouded in the clouds. Don’t forget to make a pit stop at the Golpahar tea shop to sip some fine Darjeeling tea.
Where To Stay
Habre’s Nest is a high-end option for those who’d like a four-star hotel experience in a homestay built out of bamboo and wood. The service is flawless and the food excellent (â‚¹20,000 per day, including meals). A 7-day UNIQUES expedition costs â‚¹1,50,000 (+91-9871384780, uniques.photography). For a more affordable stay, try Shikhar Lodge at Tumling (from â‚¹1,500; +97-79742615068).
What To Pack
Warm clothes: temperatures dip below 0°C November onwards. Trekking shoes are a must. As are water, first-aid and a flashlight on the trek.