The Red Panda fondly referred to as the Firefox is a critically endangered species found in the Indian Himalayas, Nepal, Bhutan and parts of China and Northern Burma. I set out on an expedition to the Singalila National Park in India and Tinchule Forest in Nepal on the Himalayan mountains with a single task of finding and photographing the rare Red Panda.
So literally crossing the road would have you enter into either India or Nepal. The above photo was shot from a vantage point overlooking the Lodge. The Green slope-roofed building is our fantastic Lodge, brilliantly located at an altitude of about 10,000 ft above MSL in the heart of the Red Panda habitat and surrounded by mountains, valleys, wide variety of flora including several himalayan endemic species and the Rhododendrons and rich fauna, mainly birds. The Lodge is geographically in Nepal and since the road marks the boundary between the two nations, cross the road and you’re geographically in Indian territory.
There is a 15 minute time difference between India and Nepal; Nepal (GMT + 5:45) being ahead in time. The Lodge however follows the Indian Standard time to avoid any confusion. It is one of the most fascinating experiences I have ever had. We reached the Lodge and were showed our rooms. Well appointed rooms with running hot and cold water, good insulation and the best part is the extremely comfortable bedding. Not many accommodations in such remote locations offer the comfort and luxury which this property could offer.
I was briefed on the safety measures, rules and regulations to be followed and other essential information before lunch. The most important advise for the rest of the day was to rest well to have a pleasant stay and be prepared for the rest of the trip! Wondering why we had to rest well for the rest of the day? At 10,000 ft, oxygen levels are lower and over exertion can cause HAS (High altitude sickness) and the last thing I wanted was getting sick in such a remote corner of the world. Proper acclimatisation and staying hydrated helps.
They have setup a hide next to a clump of Bamboo and many birds visit the place. April is always unpredictable with weather and as I settled in, a thick blanket of mist descended down and the visibility was close to nil. I could barely see what was 5 feet away from me. And in minutes, the weather cleared again. It was then that I learnt that October and November had clearer skies, but much colder than what it was in April. The weather in those months are supposed to be great for Panda viewing. It also marks the beginning of the fruiting season of certain trees attracting both birds and mammals to the trees.
From the next morning we were supposed to start our Panda tracking activities. What I hoped shouldn’t happen, happened that night. A heavy storm blew and it rained so heavily that I could hardly sleep. Woke up to a wet gloomy morning and the trackers set out on their search while I was out birding. 2 days passed with no hopes of seeing a Panda. The storm affected the sighting. On the 3rd day of tracking, there was some good news and I saw my first Panda. Although the place it was feeding on wasn’t ideal for photography, the sheer excitement of being able to watch a species which I behind and for which I flew 2500 odd km was great. That morning, the level of excitement doubled when the guide found a second Panda and this was a bumper sighting.
On hearing about the sighting I ran for close to 2 km in that altitude which wasn’t easy carrying cameras. I moved from the Nepalese side to Indian side for the second sighting. The Red Panda was relaxed, feeding away on the bamboo leaves and didn’t seem to care about our presence and gave me some amazing photo opportunities. Having a 70-200mm lens with a 1.4x Teleconverter, the range was just right. The guides gave me 10 minutes with the Panda and insisted we had to move. They strictly follow this protocol to not spend too much time with the animal and move away after a few minutes. We slowly walked back to the lodge recollecting and celebrating my first Panda sighting.
Early the next morning, drove up in the vintage Land Rover to the peak of Sandakphu to get a panoramic view of Mt Everest and Kanchendjunga. Unfortunately, the cloud cover was too much to see the peaks. Oct0ber/November would’ve been a better time to be here for sure. Nevertheless, the scenic view from the peak was unparalleled. I had 2 more sightings that trip on different occasions, both better than the first Panda.
Being at and altitude of 10,000 ft, the star lit sky is a fascinating subject to photograph for me. On one of the nights after dinner, I set up my camera on a tripod with a remote and walked up to the edge of the cliff holding a torch and remotely triggering my camera. The lights below is the Nepalese tea plantation hub of Ilam. The exploration trip up to the Himalayas was a life changing experience. Met some nice people who eventually became good friends and not to forget, the food served by the Lodge was very tasty. Being in such a remote location, from fruits to chocolates to cheese, everything was made available. The team took great care of us and I am looking forward to October/November to get back. Hopefully by then, the virus would be under control and we all can resume normalcy.
Author: Gaurav Ramnarayanan