A Trip worth a Lifetime

Features Issue 158 Jan, 2015
Text by Sonam Tashi

A personal memoir of a conservationist on his first Red Panda sighting.

I am writing this story about a day I will always remember. It was 11th November, 2007, the first wild red panda sighting of my life. We were camping on the lap of the highest hill in Ilam district, Sandakpur, in Mabu village. We were at an altitude of 2845m on a frosty winter day. The local people of Jamuna and Mabu village were busy celebrating the festival of lights, Tihar, and enjoying the Deusi-Bhailo. There were six American eco-tourists with us, accompanied by the founder and the then Executive Director of Red Panda Network, Brian H. Williams. I think this was the first eco-trip organized by Red Panda Network for red panda lovers who would get to experience the gentle and cuddly  animal in the wild. Since then we have organized several red panda based eco-trips in eastern Nepal. 

It was the eighth day of our eco-trip, which began from chaotic Kathmandu through the Maipokhari, the youngest Ramsar site of Nepal. Along with the trained Forest Guardians, we started red panda tracking in the adjoining forests of Panchthar and Ilam for four days with no luck, but the fifth day was to be the lucky one. In the late afternoon, we received a message from the GPS-radio of one of the Forest Guardians, Sange Sherpa, who excitedly reported the spotting of two red pandas.

The sighting spot was just 25 minutes above our camp, but it took less than 10 minutes of hiking for us to get there. Everyone was excited and equipped with cameras and binoculars. The cute red pandas were sleeping a few meters apart, in the top of a Sorbus tree.  Sange was happily waiting for us, and he pointed out the red panda to us. I was unable to see it for a few seconds as they were on the top of the tree, hidden behind leaves. We kept a good distance from them so that they weren’t disturbed by our presence. We all were quiet and breathing deeply to relax our lungs after running and seeing the charming fire fox. Eventually, they moved, which afforded us a better view. After a few minutes of watching them, I tok some notes and GPS data; it was at an elevation of 2967m. The eco-tourists took a lot of photos and video footage, and after about half an hour of observation, we left them in their peaceful habitat despite our desire to stay longer. I was the last one to leave the spot because I didn’t want to leave them alone!  

This was a very memorable experience for me on so many levels. Not only did I get to see a red panda in the wild for the first time, but after spending a lot of time in the field and walking several kilometres of transects through the vast thicket of bamboo, the satisfaction of the sighting was incredible. While writing this story, I was calculating the length of the total transects I had walked with my colleague Kamal Kandel, and was surprised to discover that we  covered more than 130 KM in the forests of Ilam and Panchthar with the Forest Guardians. I think the field work on red panda conservation is a very difficult task, as this species loves to inhabit inaccessible terrain in the forested mountains, particularly areas with vast thickets of bamboo and rhododendron. 

Everyone was happy after accomplishing their mission of seeing a red panda in the wild. Brian was the happiest one of them because this would be the first successful red panda eco-trip after he had spent more than a year researching the species. The credit for bringing red panda conservation to the limelight and for field oriented conservation in Nepal, after the late Pralad Yonzon, goes to him. In 1986 and 1987, Yonzon became the first person in Nepal’s Himalayas to study the red panda in the wild, and his work has given us the ground knowledge about this species for conservational projects. 

The day after our red panda sighting, we were preparing to depart from our “Lucky Camp,” when another skilled tracker, Phinju Sherpa, spotted another panda. We followed him carrying our backpacks, and were rewarded with an even better view than our first sighting. After a brief period of observation, we moved on to Jaubari village and the next day we finished our trip at Kanyam in Ilam. 

There are unsung heroes behind the conservation of red pandas in eastern Nepal. Local people trained as “Forest Guardians” act as conservational ambassadors in their respective local communities. They not only help spread conservation awareness, but also participate in regular monitoring of red panda habitat. This community-based initiative is being actioned through the endorsement of a red panda focused conservation provision in the operational plan of each respective Community Forest Users Group. One Forest Guardian, Tej Kumar Rai, is a prime example of this red panda conservation initiative. He was the first citizen scientist to confirm the presence of red panda for in Phalaicha 
VDC, Panchthar.

Tej Kumar Rai, Sepi, Phalaicha, Panchthar 
Tej is a 32-year-old Forest Guardian of the Red Panda Network, who was trained in monitoring red pandas during a two-day workshop at Phidim, Panchthar with our partner, Deep Jyoti Youth Club in April 2014. He learned about red panda ecology and conservation issues, GPS usage techniques, and methods and techniques of community-based red panda monitoring. He is a keen learner and quickly grasped the knowledge shared. As luck would have it, when he was conducting the first monitoring, he caught sight of a beautiful red panda on a tree. He was also able to capture a photo and short video footage of the animal by using his cell phone (photo attached). The evidence was a great source of inspiration and information for us to continue the conservation program of red panda in that particular VDC as their presence in this VDC had been previously speculated, but never confirmed. Recently, Tej has managed to capture photos of the same red panda, which has travelled roughly two kilometres from the forest, and appeared to be somewhat lost, near the Puspalal (Mid-Hill) Highway that is currently under construction. These photos demonstrate the need for greater conservation planning with regard to road construction, which causes fragmentation of wildlife habitats.