A thrilling search for Asia's rare pint-sized pandas

red panda
The red panda is unrelated to its black and white namesake but every bit as charismatic Credit: istock

The road to Singalila Ridge, more than 10,000ft up in the Eastern Himalaya, is not just long and winding. It is also steep, rough and wincingly cold, the gateway to an austere landscape of military checkpoints and wind-tattered prayer flags where India and Nepal rub shoulders beside the highest peaks in the world.

Most travellers get here in patched-up Land Rovers built in Birmingham in the 1950s, then spend a few days trekking north to the Sikkim border. My motives are more obscure, for I am hoping to track down a 2ft bundle of reddish-brown fur that is elusive, endangered, barely known and oh so cute. To raise awarenes of its existence, International Red Panda Day took place yesterday – an annual event.

Classifying the red panda, which was first described in 1827 by the French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier, has proved taxing for taxonomists. While the mammal shares some characteristics of the larger and more familiar black and white giant panda – such as having an extra thumb and a love of munching bamboo leaves – it turns out it isn’t a bear (ursidae) but a distinct genus all of its own (ailuridae).

Today, fewer than 10,000 red pandas survive in a fragmented band of high-altitude forest stretching from Nepal to Vietnam – and Kaiyakata, a two-house community on the edge of the Singalila National Park, is one of the best places to try to spot these creatures in the wild. 

Habre’s Nest, a four-room bamboo bothy with a friendly style but inadequate heating, was set up here four years ago by Shantanu Prasad, an Indian naturalist and wildlife photographer who initially came here birding but who now devotes his days to the conservation of this singular species. Shrinking habitats, hunting (the panda’s bushy striped tail is prized by some) and a low birth rate are all threats, and he estimates that no more than 30 live here in a 15,000-acre cross-border pocket he hopes will one day become a protected reserve. 

Seeing a red panda here is not a given, but Shantanu assures his guests that if they stay five days they are highly likely to succeed. Would he refund a client if they didn’t? “It has never happened,” he replies.

The Singalila National Park Credit: gnomeandi

Each dawn, a team of local spotters working in pairs head out into the forests to search for the pandas. They used to get a bonus for a sighting, and in the early days guests were advised to stay at least 12 nights. Now the hit rate has improved so much these measures are unnecessary – although when I arrive in early March there hasn’t been a glimpse for four days, owing to a late snowfall.

By sheer fluke, the moment my Land Rover reaches Habre’s Nest, Shantanu comes running out yelling “Stay in the vehicle!” The trackers have struck lucky and half an hour later, after a breathless scramble through a tangle of trees, I spy my first red panda. I’m so shocked I swear loudly, which has the Nepalis in fits, because there, 80ft up in a tree, is one of the sweetest, prettiest creatures you could ever see on this planet. With a white face, pointed ears, black button nose and a flame-hued double-layer of fur, the red panda is surprisingly well adapted and camouflaged for its shy and solitary life in this lofty environment. After 15 minutes observing this lone female, Shantanu indicates that the viewing time is over, to ensure our presence does not become intrusive.

I’m thrilled, as are my fellow guests at Habre’s Nest, who hail from Belgium, India and the United States. Avid animal lovers, they explain how the red panda is high up on the bucket list of rare wildlife sightings. 

At dinner – invariably a hearty curry accompanied by Old Monk rum – the conversation focuses on what else India has to offer in the way of wildlife. Has anyone seen the rusty-spotted cat? Lion-tailed macaques? The gharial crocodile? While the red panda lingers on this arcane wishlist, thanks to its presence in zoos, children’s books and as the logo of the Mozilla Firefox web browser, conservationists hope that its international profile will grow.

Over the next two days, the spotters repeat their success. One call comes early, when we are still in bed, and there is always a mad action-stations race into the Land Rovers, followed by a fast-paced clamber through the steep-sloped forest. Red pandas are nocturnal, so usually spend the morning snoozing in the treetops, which makes it tricky to get a decent photo. 

Being nocturnal, red pandas are often snoozing during the day Credit: Natalia SERDYUK

We all envy Shantanu’s superb portfolio, which has benefited from having top-class cameras, infinite patience and more than 150 sightings.

Besides panda-spotting, Habre’s Nest has a hide fuelled by kitchen scraps that attracts birds such as the yellow-billed blue magpie and hoary-throated barwing, along with a pair of weasel-like yellow-throated martens. One morning, we get up at 4am to drive an hour to Tonglu to watch the sunrise turn the snowy flanks of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, into a pink meringue. There is as much hiking as you fancy, and I relish the peace, wildflowers, fresh mountain air and a chance to encounter birds like the whistler’s warbler with its “witchu witchu” call.

“There are red pandas here, too,” Shantanu assures me as we walk down an abandoned road. “Just look for an orange spot.” As I scour the trees with my binoculars – and see nothing – I feel glad to be in the presence of keen-eyed experts and a plucky community that is doing its utmost to protect this gorgeous animal. Searching for the wild red panda is undoubtedly a rare and secret thrill, but allow five days and wrap up warm. 

Essentials

Because of Covid-19, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office currently advises against all non-essential travel to India and there are entry restrictions on arrival. 

For the latest advice on air corridors and international travel, see gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-travel-corridors.

Getting there

If you’re planning a trip for when restrictions are relaxed, British Airways (ba.com) flies from Heathrow to New Delhi from £433 return. 

Several low-cost carriers, including Vistara (airvistara.com) offer onward flights to Bagdogra, from where it is a five-hour drive north to Habre’s Nest (habresnest.com). Visas are required, see indianvisaonline.gov.in.

Wildlife Worldwide (01962 302086; wildlifeworldwide.com) includes five nights at Habre’s Nest as part of a 16-day Red Pandas and Tigers tailor-made tour of India. The trip is offered from November to April, from £4,995 per person based on two sharing, and includes flights, transfers, guides and most meals.

When to go

Habre’s Nest is open from October to May. Go before January for clear skies, or in February to see red panda cubs. March to May is warmer and a good time for birds and flowers.

Get inspired

Cherub of the Mist (available on YouTube) is a 2006 documentary about two zoo-bred red pandas released in Singalila National Park. Red Panda Network (redpandanetwork.org) is a Nepal-based organisation devoted to the conservation of wild red pandas. Several zoos and wildlife parks in the UK have red pandas, including Edinburgh, Chester and Whipsnade.