Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Kung Fu Panda, the movie, was a runaway success.
As a series, the movie grossed over $1.8 Billion and is the tenth highest grossing animated franchise. Clearly, a lot of people saw this movie.
Naturally, the main character of the movie, Po, the full of beans but clumsy panda, took centre stage and caught all the attention. However, there was another panda, who despite being a key character in the movies, missed out on much of the focus and adulation. I think, many might remember the character’s name but not know what animal it is.
The Red Panda.
Pretty much like how things are in real life.
The red pandas are not exactly well known even within India, despite being endangered. Which is both strange and worrying. There are only around 2500 of them in the wild. Endangered ? Oh yes. They definitely could do with some more attention and care.
Despite the name, the red pandas, don’t look anything like the more famous black and white pandas. Possibly because of the similarities in diet, they were initially considered to be part of the panda family. Later, it was believed that the red pandas belong to the racoon family ( there is a distinct similarity ). Finally, scientists gave up trying to figure out which family our pandas belong to and decided to bestow them their own unique family.
Some individual attention at last 🙂
It was quite a steep incline.
With the camera slung around my neck, and bumping against my chest, I grabbed at one of the branches, tugged at it to test its solidity and then pulled myself up. Pausing to catch my breath, I looked up to see the path Nirmal, our guide, was taking. Yup…steep.
So it continued. Grabbing at branches that were not always the best choice, occasionally slipping in the loose soil, I progressed, mostly in an ungainly fashion, on all fours, and finally reached where Nirmal was waiting.
My first thought was how on earth I would make the descent, but then as I looked through the gap of the overhanging branches and leaves, all those thoughts vanished.
There it was. Perched up in the trees.
Peering at us shyly. Cautious. Its face not entirely visible. Hidden behind the branches and flowers. Still.
Maybe we seemed to be fairly harmless, at last the whole face peeps out !
As time passed and the sun sped towards the distant horizon, the little guy started becoming a little more comfortable and moved around a wee bit.
Must say, this animal is one cute lil thing. Those eyes ! Truly, limpid pools and all that 🙂
Red Pandas are the size of a regular house cat. Its body length would be around 20-25 inches but it’s the tail, with its bushy length of around an impressive18 inches that adds serious length.
They are usually solitary. They tend to spend most of their time up in the trees and the topography of the Singalila National Park being what it is, I am amazed at how the trackers are able to spot this diminutive animal. Their task is made even more difficult by the fact that these animals are usually nocturnal and tend to start getting active only by late afternoon.
Now, the part that always fascinates me about how nature works.
Red pandas, as I mentioned earlier, are solitary animals. Cubs stay with the mother for about 18 months. Then they are on their own. And, if any of these cubs are females, just before they give birth, they instinctively start doing what all would-be mother red pandas have always done. They first identify a hollow in a tree or a crevice in rocks, then collect wood, leaves and other material that will help her make a comfortable home and wait for D-day. All alone. Not in a group where you can learn from others. Definitely not with your mom murmuring instructions over your shoulder on what you should do and how.
How do they know what needs to be done ? Where to build a home ? How are these lessons passed on? Of course, this question is not restricted to the red pandas but hearing about their solitary nature, the question just struck me once more.
Finally. After two days of waiting.
Word has reached us, as we wait at Kaiyakatta that our trackers have sighted another red panda.
Off we go.
Up a narrow path that wound up the hillside and vanished in a curve. For a change, it was not misty or cool and the warm afternoon sun beamed down at us as we hurried down the track.
The natural track, made over the years by villagers coming down to Kaiyakatta where they can hop on to any of the vehicles, wound its way through the forest, occasionally flat but usually following the natural contours of the land.
A little hop over a broken branch here, a bit of a crouch to go under the overhanging branch there and we continued.
Bird songs came up at every turn, but despite the temptations to catch a glimpse of the source, we plodded on. Comfortably at first, slightly breathlessly a little later as the path stretched on and on.
Finally, after around a 120-150 minute walk, we could see the bright, excited faces of the tracking team ahead. They definitely were feeling rather chuffed at having tracked the little animal. And why not !! I just couldn’t fathom how they spotted this one. It was a little away from the track, in a rather densely leafed tree. It was superb tracking ! I also suspect the tracking of this one will be told and retold on multiple post dinner conversations in the future…it was truly a commendable job !
This gent, was wide awake and didn’t appear to be bothered about us. He casually kept moving around and that allowed us to move around where we could get different angles, backgrounds. It wasn’t exactly easy though. Amongst the trees and bushes, space to stand was limited and one had to bend down at some places or stand precariously to get a good clear view. Not that anyone was complaining, we clicked away merrily.
After spending a good hour or two with us, our guy abruptly got bored of putting up a show and hopped off on to another tree further into the forest and vanished from sight leaving us with that wonderfully satisfied feeling that a good sighting and decent photos gives.
So why exactly are the red pandas in this precarious situation ?
The simple answer would be a one word one – Man.
A more detailed one would reveal the usual suspects. Deforestation. Loss of habitat. Poaching…and, of course, climate change.
The Himalayan forests are being cut down at an alarming rate. I mentioned in my last post, how we once stood at a height and looked down upon a vast expanse of brown earth that would have been a deep green cover not too long ago.
The added problem that deforestation results in is that you could end up breaking a continuous stretch of tree cover. Which would mean that the animals, or groups of animals, especially ones like the red pandas, will get stuck to their smaller patch. Result ? More contact with a smaller group and hence higher chances of inbreeding and all the resultant problems.
Worse than deforestation is poaching. Their bright red skins and striped tails are often desired by men to make caps. Brings good luck apparently. And, yes of course, the other belief – that the red pandas also have some magical medicinal effect.
Where does climate change come in ? The red pandas need bamboos for their diet. Bamboos need specific temperatures and altitudes to flourish. With climate change, availability of bamboos has shrunk in many places, leading to an availability issue for the little ones.
Quite depressing really. Of course, deforestation and man-animal conflict is a complex issue but some of this can definitely be addressed.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, to compound these man made problems, the red pandas themselves have a low birth rate and a high death rate.
There are a few organizations doing more than their bit for the red panda and one hopes that they succeed and these adorable little animals continue to exist and hopefully thrive !
I can’t end without a word about the team that I went with.
Firefox Expeditions. Led by Sourav Mondal and Amandeep. An absolutely wonderful group of young guys. Their understanding of the terrain, the place, the wildlife, the people, was outstanding. There was a lovely warmth, a wonderful level of friendliness and bonhomie that further added to the overall experience.
But most importantly, boy, do they track these little creatures !!!
On both the occasions that we got a sighting I was simply amazed at how they managed to do so. As I said, these are rather tiny animals, usually up on the trees and not necessarily very active. To spot them requires an incredibly sharp pair of eyes and knowledge of the animal behaviour.
If you want to go see the red panda, which I shall highly recommend, then you should look these guys at Firefox up !