Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Red Pandas of Labahe

Greetings Everyone,
After a very successful trip to the Tibetan Plateau, we flew back to Chengdu to embark on the next leg of our journey a visit to Labahe Nature Reserve. We said goodbye to our trip leader Jesper Hornskov and picked up a new guide, Roland Ziedler for our extensions to Labahe and Tangjiahe Nature Reserves. Labahe is a 6-hour drive to the southwest of Chengdu and we didn’t arrive until the night of October 19. Despite the long drive some of us were eager to search for mammals so we grabbed our torches and went on a night walk up the road. A light drizzle was falling but the animal viewing was quite good. We encountered some very tame deer on the road which at first we thought were Sambar but they turned out to be Altai Wapiti introduced recently from a deer farm. We also saw Chinese Goral, Chinese Serow, Red-and-White Flying Squirrel and a Forest Musk Deer, a lifer for both Roland and Phil.

Altai Wapiti

We left very early the next morning as we had permission to enter the reserve early to avoid the masses of Chinese tourists who were sure to arrive later. Located in the Hengduan Mountains, Labahe Nature Reserve is one of the best places in China to see Red Pandas. The vegetation and altitude of the reserve make it the perfect habitat for the Red Panda. We drove up in darkness spotting only a single Sambar. It was still too early for Red Panda so we hiked up to Azalea Lake. On the way, we spotted our first Swinhoe’s Striped Squirrel and at the lake was another Forest Musk Deer. We returned to the main road and climbed higher when Phil spotted a Red Panda feeding in a nearby tree! At this time of year, the pandas come down from the higher elevations to gorge themselves on berries to fatten up for the upcoming winter. Our group enjoyed great views at a responsible distance and took many photos.

Red Panda

After dinner, we went on a night drive. We drove up the road which ended at a high-end resort that was all lit up with kissing swans, a rainbow-colored waterfall and a Christmas tree! It was very surreal. Sadly, Labahe is turning into more of an amusement park for Chinese tourists complete with a zip-line, obstacle course, cable car and of course this "Vegas-styled" resort.

Kissing Swans

We drove back down the road seeing more mammals including Masked Palm Civets, Complex-toothed Flying Squirrel, Chinese Goral, Sambar, Red and White Giant Flying Squirrel, and Confucian Niviventer. It was nice knowing that somehow wildlife was able to coexist with all the development that was going on to amuse humans.

Chinese Goral

The next morning our special permission to enter the reserve early in our own bus was revoked and we had to wait and enter with the other tourists on a public bus. Unfortunately, a beautiful male Lady Amherst’s Pheasant was spotted by Erling but being on a public bus we couldn’t stop and we missed it completely. We were driven to the top of the road where the cable car rides were just getting underway. We walked down the road on the lookout for Red Pandas but saw none. We made it down to the “zip-line road” and started the climb back up to make a second pass for pandas. Sarah and Cathy spotted a Swinhoe’s Striped Squirrel close by and we got good views and photos.

Swinhoe’s Striped Squirrel

We resumed our climb when Sarah spotted something in a tree far up the road. To our amazement, it was a Red Panda, a great find! He was lying in the open on a branch and there was a clearing where we could get off the road and set up our scopes and cameras to view and photograph the panda. We watched the panda sleep, groom and feed for almost an hour. This fellow (I’m assuming it was a male) had a tattered right ear while the panda we saw yesterday had an intact right ear so this was a different individual.

Red Panda

Red Pandas are endangered mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation. 98% of their diet consists of bamboo and pandas are exposed to other threats when they have to cross unsuitable habitat to find new stands of bamboo. Red Pandas are also susceptible to canine distemper which is fatal to them. As more people, particularly herders, encroach Red Panda habitat, contact between domestic dogs (and their excreta) and Red Pandas increases. Hunting for the pet trade seems to be increasing as they are “cute” and endearing creatures.

Red Panda

On our last day in the reserve, permission to enter early was granted and we drove to the top of the road. Our driver who had never been to Labahe before spotted our third Red Panda near the top of the road! This was the highest elevation that Roland had ever seen a Red Panda at. This individual wasn’t as obliging as the previous two and climbed down the tree and disappeared in the thick understory of bamboo.

Red Panda

We walked back down the road when suddenly Phil spotted a second Red Panda! It was “Snippy”, the panda with the missing right ear that we had seen yesterday. It was our fourth Red Panda sighting of at least three different individuals. It was great to see the pandas doing well despite the amount of human encroachment going on. As long as large tracks of forests are kept intact and people and their dogs stick to the main road, Red Pandas have a chance of surviving here.

Red Panda (Snippy)

We walked back to our bus parked at the entrance to the “zip-line road" and decided to walk to the end of the road. It was a good decision as Cathy spotted a Forest Musk Deer quite close and we got our best view yet of this hard-to-see species. Like the Red Panda, the Forest Musk Deer is endangered. It is hunted for its highly prized musk used in cosmetics.

Forest Musk Deer

We opted to walk back to the hotel and encountered some Tibetan Macaques forging naturally off the road. However further down we saw a Chinese woman being accosted by a macaque. She had food and the macaque wanted it. He grabbed her shirt and she ended up tossing her food just to get the monkey away from her. We walked past at a safe distance but the macaque bared his teeth showing his ferocious canines. Feeding the macaques makes them aggressive and dangerous. There was a sign posted along the road about not feeding them. One of the last sentences said, “if you are bitten, don’t panic, wash the wound and go to your doctor for a rabies shot”. Very disconcerting! 

Tibetan Macaque

We went for a final night walk on our own not seeing much so we headed back to the hotel. We ran into some of our group heading out for a late night drive so we joined them. I spotted a Leopard Cat sitting on the side of the road! The cat moved off before Marc could get a photo but it was our best view of a Leopard Cat yet. We also saw Masked Palm Civet, Red and White Flying Squirrel, Chinese Goral, and Sambar.

Masked Palm Civet

Red and White Flying Squirrel

The next morning we left Labahe for the long drive to Tangjiahe Nature Reserve. Despite the amount of development going on at Labahe, wildlife including some endangered species appear to be hanging on. Hopefully, the Chinese government will realize that tourists come to Labahe to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and to see mammals that are becoming increasingly difficult to find elsewhere.

Fall Foliage

Given enough space to feed, breed and find shelter most animals will do just fine. It is our sincere hope that Labahe Nature Reserve will continue to provide a safe haven for China’s Red Pandas and other amazing wildlife for many years to come!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

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