Thursday, February 11, 2016

Red Pandamonium!

Greetings All,
Our travels have brought us to India in search of the elusive Fishing Cat.  I was expecting to go deep into the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, far from human encroachment, to find these mainly nocturnal, solitary cats but instead we headed for the suburbs of Kolkata!  How could such a secretive animal live among 14 million people that inhabit Kolkata and the surrounding areas?  We were soon to find out.  We drove about 10 miles to the northwest of Kolkata where we met Bappa, a local man who has been studying and protecting Fishing Cats in this area.  The plan was to set up a hide next to one of the ponds in the area and wait for the cats to come and fish.

Typical Pond
I was a bit apprehensive as Avi, our trip leader, warned that leeches, venomous snakes and mosquitoes also inhabit these areas.  He provided us with leech socks made of nylon and extending to the knee to keep the leeches at bay.  Now what about the snakes?  Avi explained that you could hear the Russel's Vipers approach but that the Banded Kraits were more of a problem.  They were silent and their bite feels more like an ant string.  By the time you realize you've been bitten, it's too late.  "Great", I thought.  We walked through a small banana plantation to a small pond where a hide had been set up.

On our Way to the Hide

It looked mostly enclosed.  I was a bit reluctant to get in but the local guides assured me that there were no leeches and no snakes.  Avi helped Marc set up his camera outside the hide on a tripod.  A slit had been cut through the mosquito netting so Marc could operate the camera and flash from inside the hide.  Now all we had to do was to wait for a cat to show up around dusk.

Marc in the Hide

We sat in silence for 3 hours not moving too much.  As dusk approached the Muslim call to prayers wailed over a loudspeaker from the nearby village.  The Golden Jackals howled a response but no Fishing Cats appeared.  I switched my headlamp to red so I could scan for snakes in the dark and fortunately there were none.  It became too dark to see so we brought out our night vision monocular.  It didn't work well through the mosquito net so if there was a Fishing Cat out there we'd never see it.  The guys came to retrieve us at 7:00 PM.  We'd try again early the next morning.

We returned to the site around 4:00 AM, scanning a few ponds on the way in but not seeing any cats.  A few jackals were scavenging around the village garbage dumps.  We entered the hide waiting for dawn.  Bappa came to retrieve us around 7:00 AM and told us he had seen a Fishing Cat on the way in.  We weren't so lucky.  As we were returning to our van, Avi got a call that a fishing cat had run out while the guys were taking down our hide!  This was getting down right exasperating.  We'd try again for a third and final time this evening.

On our final attempt for the Fishing Cat,  the pond was visited by a greater Coucal and a Pond Heron but sadly a Fishing Cat did not show up.

A Greater Coucal  Paid us a Visit

Bappa excitedly arrived around 7:00 PM and told us to hurry up, a fishing cat had been found!  We raced off in our van to a village where some locals met us and led the way to a nearby pond.  One guy said to wait 15 minutes and the cat would appear.  I was a bit skeptical but sure enough a male fishing cat appeared on the bank of the pond.  By this time the whole village was out to see the cat or maybe the crazy foreigners with their fancy cameras.  The cat hung around long enough for Marc to get photos.  

Male Fishing Cat!

Male Fishing Cat!

By this time the crowd had become too large and boisterous so the fishing cat left.  This was the craziest cat encounter we've ever had!  

After our successful encounter with a Fishing Cat we turned our attention to searching for the seriously cute Red Panda.  To find the pandas we had to fly from Kolkata to Bagdogra to the north.  From here we drove to the border town of Kankarbhitta to check in with the authorities.  The town was jam packed with trucks, buses, rickshaws, motorbikes and people.  It was more chaotic than Kolkata.  


We had to check in with the local immigration authorities in India and Nepal.  We needed to be able to cross the border when looking for Red Pandas to the north - except there were no border crossings in that area.   After bouncing between the Indian and Nepal border stations a couple of times we got the necessary authorizations in our passports.

Finally we were on on way.  As we drove higher it became cloudy and colder.  It was dark by the time we reached the foreigner check in office at Maney Bhanjang and a further 15 minute drive brought us to our guesthouse in Chitray.  The next day we transferred to jeeps for the bone jarring drive to Singalila National Park.  The park lies along the border between India and Nepal under the looming Kanchenjunga Range.  

Kanchenjunga Range from Singalila Ridge.  

Here a large tract of rhododendron, oak, and bamboo forest has been preserved as prime Red Panda habitat.  Our first day of searching yielded no pandas but some nice birds.  

Blue-fronted Redstart

Black-faced Laughingttrush

On our second day of searching we investigated a tract of forest beyond the village of Kayakatta where Avi had seen pandas on a trip last October.  Sure enough, a beautiful female Red Panda was sleeping high up in an oak tree not far from the road.  

Female Red Panda!

The Red Panda is a small arboreal mammal native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China.  It most closely resembles a raccoon but is not related to them.  In fact the red panda is the only living species of the genus Ailurus and the family Ailuridae.  Its wild population is estimated at less than 10,000 mature individuals and continues to decline due to habitat loss and poaching.  They feed mainly on bamboo and acorns but are omnivorous as they also eat eggs, birds, insects, and small mammals.
We returned to the same spot which we had dubbed "Panda Corner" the following day to see if the Red Panda was still there.  She had moved off but a large male was sleeping in a nearby tree!  Marc got a few good photos before the thick fog moved in making viewing and photography difficult.

Male Red Panda!

Avi got a call that 3 pandas had been spotted by the entrance to the park!  We raced off to see them.  When we arrived one of the trackers met us and led us down a steep path.  Lo and behold there were 3 pandas, a beautiful female with 2 nearly grown cubs.  Marc took many photos of the cubs playing with each other and mom.

Red Panda Cubs!

We watched them for about 45 minutes until they climbed down from the tree and disappeared into the forest.  We returned to the lodge to have a beer by the warm fire thrilled with our amazing encounters with the Red Pandas.

The next two days we searched for Red Pandas in Nepal.  In a small village not far from the border, the Red Panda Network operates tours from here.  To learn more about Red Pandas and how you can help go to:

We didn't find the Red Pandas in this area but on the way back to our lodge we spotted some beautiful birds near Kayakatta.  

Male Kalij Pheasant

Spotted Laughingthrush

On our final day in the park we headed down the same trail near the entrance to look for the Red Panda family.  When we got to the bottom, the 2 trackers had not found them.  We were about to head down further when the trackers spotted them in a tree just behind us.  We had a pretty good vantage point but the trackers and another group had found a spot above.  

Red Panda Family!

Avi said the view wasn't much better above so we stayed below.  Finally we moved up to where they were.  The 2 cubs had come down to feed on the bamboo at eye level!

One of the Red Panda Cubs Eating Bamboo

Shortly after we arrived, the 2 cubs climbed down and took off followed by their mother. 

Female Red Panda

What a thrilling time spent with the Red Pandas!  We hope that the governments of India and Nepal will continue to protect these docile and endangered mammals and their fragile forest habitat.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc 

Our Route:

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