Every time I tell someone I’m traveling to Nepal, they assume I’m going to Base Camp. But Everest isn’t my reason for being here. Rather than trekking, I’m here for tracking. I’m heading to the eastern edge of the country to spot my favorite animal in the wild. I’ll be tracking red pandas in Nepal, and I can’t wait.
Tracking Red Pandas in Nepal
I’ve wanted to do this trip for almost a decade. I’ve loved red pandas since first spotting their adorable faces at a zoo in my early 20’s, but never imagined I could see them in the wild. Then I came across the Red Panda Network website while searching for cute red panda photos online (who wouldn’t?). When I realized they did ecotrips to Nepal I was determined to go someday.
Last summer I was reminded of the trips after stumbling upon a program about red pandas on TV. I told my boyfriend about my dream and he suggested we make it a reality. The Red Panda Network had an ecotrip scheduled over my birthday, so it seemed fitting to go. We booked it.
Now we’re flying from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur, where our mission to go tracking red pandas in Nepal begins. We drive from the airport to the Ilam district, staying overnight surrounded by lush tea gardens on the way to our first official stop.
The next day a bumpy jeep ride through the hills brings us to Ingla, a village near the Choyatar Community Forest.
We’re staying with a family here for the next two nights as we track red pandas nearby. Our room is new, clean, and nicer than expected, and the food is so flavorful that we welcome second helpings every time. So far so good.
Early the next morning we’re off on our first day of tracking red pandas in Nepal. We hike into the woods, waiting patiently as our accompanying forest guardians venture ahead to spot the elusive animals.
The trees are spectacular with their hanging moss and dark interiors, but they make such good hiding places that I worry we won’t see any pandas.
But our patience pays off. In the afternoon we get word that a panda has been spotted, and off we go to get a glimpse.
At first he’s so camouflaged I can’t see him. But as my eyes adjust to the light, a little orange furball materializes. Seeing him in his natural habitat is every bit as amazing as I imagined, and as he moves ever closer I almost believe he’s coming in for a hug.
He swerves at the last minute, heading down the tree trunk and off into the grass. But even though he’s not as keen on a cuddle as I hoped, I have goosebumps.
The next day we drive to another village called Jaubari, where heavy rain keeps the pandas in hiding.
But we don’t give up hope. We’re off to a place called Dobate the following morning, and we’ve heard red pandas have been spotted there in recent days.
It’s a drive through India’s Singalila National Park to get there, and we admire the misty mountain landscapes as we go. Once in Dobate we settle in for a two-night home stay with a local family and get excited to go tracking red pandas again.
But the pandas elude us. For two days rain and mist make them difficult to find, so we focus our attention on other local highlights. Rhododendron forests enchant us with twisted trunks and pink carpets, and sunrises illuminate the mountain landscapes with all kinds of color.
On our last day we get lucky. Our forest guardians leave early on a speculative mission to a local forest where they suspect red pandas live. Almost as soon as they arrive, they spot one in a tree. We quickly follow, arriving to see an orange blob high in the branches.
The red panda is sleepy (it’s 6am, after all), but she soon wakes up and takes an interest in us. Down the tree she comes, stopping at intervals to check us out. As with the previous panda, I’m amazed by how curious she is about us and how close she comes.
We watch her for an hour, then let her get on with her day. We have ground to cover ourselves, as we need to drive back to where we stayed on our first night so we can catch our flight back to Kathmandu the following afternoon.
As our jeep rocks over the dirt road, I think back on the last ten days. It’s hard to believe how much we’ve done and seen, and I still can’t quite believe I finally got to go tracking red pandas in Nepal.
As we fly to Kathmandu and on to London, I try to figure out when I can return and how I can do more to help. The red pandas are endangered, after all, and while ecotrips help support conservation work, there’s a lot more to do.
So I’m starting with this blog post to share about my experience and help get the word out. If you’re temped to go, I highly recommend the Red Panda Network’s ecotrips. I’m also going to hold myself accountable to supporting them in their work. Given there are only a few thousand red pandas left in the wild, I can’t start soon enough.
Have you been tracking red pandas in Nepal? What was it like?