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On the red panda trail

This panda has been nicknamed Shifu by local trackers, after the wise master from the movie ‘Kung Fu Panda’. Red pandas are elusive creatures that can be hard to spot in the thick canopy of the bamboo, oak and rhododendron forests. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan)Premium
This panda has been nicknamed Shifu by local trackers, after the wise master from the movie ‘Kung Fu Panda’. Red pandas are elusive creatures that can be hard to spot in the thick canopy of the bamboo, oak and rhododendron forests. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan)

  • Tracking the elusive mammal in the ancient oak and rhododendron forests of the Singalila National Park in the eastern Himalaya
  • In India, this threatened species is found in Sikkim, western Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal’s Darjeeling district and parts of Meghalaya

It’s 4am, and dawn is breaking. We are standing on the East Himalayan ridge at Sandakphu, the highest point on the zigzag Singalila trail that forms the border between India’s West Bengal and Nepal’s Ilam district. At an altitude of 3,636m (11,930ft), it is incredibly cold, but the view is breathtaking: I can see four of the five highest peaks in the world—Everest, Kangchenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu.

While this is a regulation sightseeing point, it is still a must-do. The spectacular view of the Himalayan peaks and the jungles fills the viewer with a sense of awe.

I have come here to try and spot the red panda—an elusive Himalayan bear-like species, slightly larger than a domestic cat. In India, it is found in Sikkim, western Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal’s Darjeeling district and parts of Meghalaya. It is a threatened species, with the highest level of legal protection.

The trail that winds through the Singalila National Park is great for birdwatching too. It stretches from Manebhanjan to Sandakphu, both in West Bengal, and then to Phalut in Sikkim, cutting through the rugged terrain of thick bamboo, oak and rhododendron forests. This is prime and ancient red panda habitat, and it boasts of the highest gene pool diversity of the animal, according to scientists.

The Singalila trail attracts people from around the world. Hiking or renting old , refurbished 4x4 Land Rovers are the only ways in from Manebhanjan—the vehicles are legendary for their reliability in rough terrain.

I stayed at a cosy community-run home-stay called Habre’s Nest, in Kaiakata village in Ilam, right next to the trail. Named after the red panda (habre in Nepali), the home-stay contributes 20% of its profits to panda conservation. The staff is local, trained by the lodge, which also conducts awareness, skill development, and health vaccination camps.

Each morning, 12-15 trackers go scouting for pandas, which are rarely seen from the road. My first opportunity to spot one came on the fifth day of my eight-day stay, when the trackers located a panda on an incredibly steep slope. Laden with heavy camera equipment, it took me almost an hour to reach—more sliding than walking—the location.

A panda, nicknamed Shifu by the trackers, was just beginning to forage on the ripening fruit of a sarbuz (Himalayan whitebeam) tree. We spent the rest of the day with the animal, quietly taking position at eye level a little distance away.

Red pandas are arboreal, skilfully moving within the tree canopy. The belly and limbs are jet black, there are white markings on the sides of the head and above the eyes, and the rest of the body is covered in thick russet fur. The acrobatic animals use their ringed tails for balance as well as a wraparound blanket. They are shy and solitary animals, except when they are trying to attract a mate.

Unlike the first, my second sighting was pure luck. I was on my way to Bagdogra airport to catch the return flight. Our driver stopped near Tumling Phatak, an hour from Habre’s Nest, and stepped out. We immediately heard an excited cry. He had spotted a panda in a beautiful meadow below the road. The morning sun kissed the slopes of the Kangchenjunga behind, and the panda sat on the low branches of a tree on the grassy slope. It was one of my most magical natural history moments.

Red crossbills, which have unique bills to force open conifer cones to get to the seeds inside, are a common sight in Sandakphu.
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Red crossbills, which have unique bills to force open conifer cones to get to the seeds inside, are a common sight in Sandakphu. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan)

On days when there was no sign of the pandas, I went on birding hikes. Many East Himalayan birds can be seen easily in this pristine habitat. From the makeshift hide behind the home-stay, I spotted laughingthrushes, parrotbills and fulvettas. Species like the red crossbill, which I was keen on, are plentiful in Sandakphu.

t The large spotted laughingthrush is one of the regulars of the Singalila landscape. I photographed this one from the hide behind the Habre’s Nest home-stay.
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t The large spotted laughingthrush is one of the regulars of the Singalila landscape. I photographed this one from the hide behind the Habre’s Nest home-stay.

While each day was physically demanding, given the steep terrain and the rarefied mountain air, it was worth the effort because of the sheer beauty of the landscape, the incredible biodiversity, and the warm hospitality of the locals.

The cosy dining area and bar at Habre’s Nest is a great spot to enjoy freshly brewed rhododendron wine in a traditional mug.
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The cosy dining area and bar at Habre’s Nest is a great spot to enjoy freshly brewed rhododendron wine in a traditional mug. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan)
Local trackers go out in search of the red panda every morning. They know the forest well and are familiar with the favourite spots of the animals.
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Local trackers go out in search of the red panda every morning. They know the forest well and are familiar with the favourite spots of the animals. (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan)
A rented Series I 4x4 ‘Landy’ dating back to the 1950s, with new Mahindra engines, made the trip from Manebhanjan to Habre’s Nest. The mighty Kanchenjunga range forms the backdrop for much of the journey
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A rented Series I 4x4 ‘Landy’ dating back to the 1950s, with new Mahindra engines, made the trip from Manebhanjan to Habre’s Nest. The mighty Kanchenjunga range forms the backdrop for much of the journey (Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan)

Ramki Sreenivasan is a technology entrepreneur and wildlife photographer.

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