Tagging Red Riding Hood – the Red Panda
An attempt to sight the peculiar mammal of the Eastern Himalayas, the shy Red Panda took the author through a harrowing yet oddly satisfying trek through the remote jungles and mountains of NorthEast India.
“Sir! Panda…Panda…..Panda…….Panda ped par so raha hai “(Panda is sleeping on the tree), whispered Dawa, one of our field guides. That was the first sighting of Red Panda for us, after weeks of efforts to witness this wonderful moment. Five days had already passed, scanning the Red Panda habitat in Pangchen Lakhar Community Conservation Area (CCA). Days spent in search of Red Panda evidence, and we could only get some old faecal samples of Red Panda.
On the sixth day, we left our camp at 6:30am, with hope and excitement. My colleague Avijit and I, along with our young guides, Dorjee and Dawa began climbing steep slopes and scanning the thick canopy and never-ending undergrowth of thorny shrubs, herbs, and bamboo After climbing mountain slope for about 100m, Dawa climbed a tree to scan the area, and spotted the Panda sleeping on a tree. This was the moment of sheer excitement. The wet and mossy tree trunk made it difficult for me to climb a tree to glimpse the sleeping panda. By the time I climbed a tree, panda had noticed our presence and my moment with the panda lasted for 30-40 seconds.
Currently, I am working as a Project Fellow for the project, Conservation of Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) in Eastern Himalaya. This project is awarded to Dr. Mukesh Thakur, Scientist C under the DST- INSPIRE Faculty Scheme and being implemented through Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Kolkata, under the esteemed guidance of Dr. Kailash Chandra, Director, ZSI. Dr. Thakur started working on a red panda in China during his association with the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Kunming, China. He conceived the idea to understand and evaluate the distribution, population status and conservation genetics for long term management of red panda in India. The project also aims to explore the diet and composition of gut microbiota of red panda in orderto understand the foraging behaviour of the red panda.
In India, no genetic study has been carried especially on the free-ranging wild populations of Red Panda. While approximately one-third of the wild population of Red Panda is supposed to live in India. It is imperative to study its distribution, abundance and genetic diversity. Red Panda is the flagship species in conservation science, but it has been poorly studied due to its secretive nature. In India, Red Panda is reported from Sikkim, West Bengal (WB), Arunachal Pradesh (AP) and Meghalaya. The largest supported habitat lies in AP between 2200m – 3600m above MSL. According to the IUCN, 2015 PHVA the amount of habitat availability for Red Panda in Sikkim and Arunachal was 6,400 sq km, and if more rigid constraints are given, the suitable habitat was about 2,600 sq km.
The Red Panda is seriously threatened throughout its range due to destruction and fragmentation of habitat. The threats include illegal logging, fuelwood collection, jhumming(slash and burn shifting cultivation), livestock grazing and various anthropogenic activities. The fragmentation could be a major threat because it restricts the movement and also causes inbreeding due to small fragmented habitat patches.
Glatson et al. in 2015 raised the concern to evaluate the genetic make-up of the Red Panda population on the Meghalaya plateau, which is found in anomalously tropical habitat as reported by Choudhary in 2001. It is also suspected, if the Red Panda is native to Meghalaya then it might be a separate subspecies. Due to the natural and anthropogenic fragmentation of its habitat, the Red Panda populations might exist in the meta-population framework.
As the largest potential habitat and population is supposed to be in Arunachal Pradesh, we decided to start our survey and sampling from Arunachal Pradesh (AP).
We had our first sighting in Tawang district, AP. But it had taken us months of effort to study literature, to plan the field tour and to access the local and administrative support. To reach Zemithang, Tawang district, it was a 4-day journey from Kolkata. The transformation of the landscape was magical. We had to cross the plains of Ganges and Brahmaputra by train up to Guwahati, then a 5-hr bus journey to Tezpur in Assam. The kilometres of plains ended at Bhalukpong from where we entered The Land of Dawn Lit Mountains. As we entered Arunachal Pradesh, the landscape turned into the lush, dense green with never-ending mountain chains arising one above another. During the 15 hours journey from Tezpur to Tawang, we experienced bright sunshine, clouds, rain, hailstorms and finally snowfall at Sela pass, which is the highest pass on this route (4170m AMSL).
After reporting and discussing the plan of work with the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Tawang for conducting fieldwork in Community Conservation Area (CCA) of Tawang district, we moved to the planned study area, i.e., Zemithang. Zemithang is situated 92km from Tawang town connected by road. There are two CCA (Community Conservation Area) around Zemithang which are Pangchen Lakhar CCA and Pangchen Lumpo Muchat CCA divided by Nyamjang Chu river. Zemithang village is situated at an altitude of 2100m above MSL on the bank of Nyamjang Chu river, with 5-6 hamlets in the valley named, Lumpo, Muchat, Kharman, Sockchen, Gorsang, etc.
We were in Zemithang, trying to gather all this information, trying to know possible Red Panda habitats. But it was not an easy task. Preparations had begun months back. We went through extensive literature to understand the species and its habitat. To gain the support of the local community for conducting the study, it was essential to understand their culture and rituals. Officials and locals were contacted in advance. Interviews with local people helped us gaining knowledge about the area. And it also helped us finding local young guides who helped us through fieldwork, setting up camps, cooking, leading trails, etc. Me, Avijit and our guides, Dorjee and Dawa packed our bags, bought grocery with the purpose of 10 days spent in the wilderness. We were equipped with a jacket, sleeping bag, sample collection kit, a camera with a tripod, grocery and another necessary thing.
With one backpack on the back, one on the front and a sleeping bag in hand, we got down from vehicle which dropped us at Kumbutsar (3300 m ASL). We settled in a herder’s hut. It was a small hut with tin walls and a sloping roof. Dried fuel-wood racked inside, some local utensils and a place for cooking. Our morning used to start at 5:00 with golden glowing snow-capped mountains in front of our hut. We spent four days scanning the mountain ridges and slopes in search of Red Panda evidence but we could only find traces of its presence. Climbing the trees to find faecal pellets and to scan the area had become our break time job. Four exhaustive days went without electricity, phone network and no humans to see except four of us. But colourful birds and their chirping were entertaining us.
We decided to climb down and set up another camp at Rukumjiji (3050m ASL). But this time we had to carry our luggage on our backs through the forest. It was an exhaustive trek. But immediately after settling down in another hut, we decided to survey a small trail to see habitat. We found no evidence of panda but a good amount of bamboo undergrowth. It was getting dark by the time we reached back to the camp. Five days had already gone, and everyone looked sad and a little disappointed, but I had to bring it on now because I wanted our team to work well. Next morning with a plan we started walking a trail, and within 2 hours we found a 1st fresh faecal sample of Red Panda. . Making our ways through eight feet tall bamboo, we could barely see the canopy in some areas. But our guides were true climbers. The four of us started climbing the 50-degree slope through 2-3 m tall, thick bamboo undergrowth. When we found our first panda in the wild, even though the moment lasted for less than a minute, I managed to take a few pictures of that beautiful creature, with its mental image imprinted well on my mind.
There was not a single day without rain since we entered Arunachal Pradesh, it was getting worse day after day. A thunderstorm had become part of our lives by now. But it did not stop us from pursuing our goal of another Red Panda encounter and to collect a fresh faecal sample for genetic analysis. Due to heavy rainfall, it was difficult to get fresh samples, we tried and collected several samples from different locations. Next morning, we found ourselves trapped in the thick layer of clouds and our search became challenging as visibility was reduced significantly. Still, we managed to find another panda sleeping on a tree, it was soaked by the rain, with its fur coat converting into spikes and the bushy tail had become thin and spiky. We observed the Panda for the next 2 hours, which spent grooming his fur and tail for almost an hour.
By this time our trip concluded, we all were tired,and we were short of grocery. The weather was also getting worse. On our last day at the remote camp, the day started with trekking in the clouds, but fortunately, it was not raining. I had no satisfactory picture of Panda due to bad weather and difficult terrain. We decided to split into two groups. Avijit and I split up to go on different trails accompanied by our guides. We aimed to cover maximum area and collect faecal samples from different locations. Clouds drifted apart, and I was lucky again to spot a Red Panda sleeping on a tree from a distance of about 150m. Scanning through binocular helped me spot it. We started walking towards Panda slowly with minimal noise, although it sensed, our presence but slept again as we hid in the bushes. I climbed up the slope to see the panda at eye level and settled there. But canopy didn’t allow me to have a clear view of Red Panda. Again, observations begun, the lazy panda was sleeping, grooming, pooping and moving on the tree. It was difficult to hold on the steep terrain and mites had already started sucking my blood. But I kept silent, patiently observing the panda from bushes. Finally, it decided to come down to feed, and I got my moment. I got a clear view through the canopy for a few seconds, and managed to click some shots. As soon as it disappeared, we collected faecal samples and left the Panda alone.
We focused on Red Panda signs; such as faecal matter, bedding sites, direct sighting, feeding site, hairs, pugmarks etc. During the survey, we found evidence of Red Panda at 33 sites. Location and vegetation data were collected. We also collected faecal samples from 19 sites for genetic analysis, of which most were collected from bedding sights and some from the ground. We had four direct sightings of Red Panda. At every sighting, the Red Panda was observed by using binoculars from a distance to note the activities of the animal. In three cases, Red Panda was observed sleeping on inclined tree branches covered with thick moss. Bedding sites were on the thick branches at the height of 2-8m above the ground. A good number of faecal samples were seen on the bedding sites. The Red Panda sleeps cuddling its bushy tail around its body. After heavy rains, Red Panda was observed grooming and drying its coat. It climbed down the tree with its head down first. Its pseudo-thumb seemed to help it climb down the tree with head-on. Another Red Panda was observed marking the territory by peeing on the branches of the trees. After having a primary survey in Tawang district and considering the large area to be covered, we set up a base camp at Zemithang to undertake extensive surveys for sample collection for genetic analysis.
Community Conservation Areas are playing an important role in the conservation of wildlife in Zemithang. There are 5-6 hamlets in the valley named, Lumpo, Muchat, Kharman, Sockchen, Gorsang, etc. Each hamlet in this area is headed by a Gambura. The specific areas in the CCA are assigned to hamlets as grazing grounds for livestock. Controlled forest products collection system is employed in the CCAs to avoid the exploitation of flora and fauna. The cultural and spiritual beliefs of the Monpa people are helping conserve the natural habitat of Red Panda. Monpas are followers of Tibetan Buddhism, so they don’t believe in killing of animals. People are gentle and respect nature and natural resources. The 6th Dalai Lama was born at Urgelling Monastery, 5 kilometres from Tawang. Due to the strong influence of Buddhism, wildlife is being protected in Tawang. The killing of any wild animal is a serious offense and any person found guilty is punished and defamed in the community. This is why the killing of wild animals in this area is almost negligible.
At least in Tawang, the fate of Red Panda seems to be good. However, the case in other parts of Arunachal Pradesh is different. Hunting for bushmeat and killing of wild animals is part of tribal communities in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh. We need to find the ground reality and conduct capacity building programs to educate people about wildlife conservation for a sustainable future.
“All beings tremble before violence. All fear death, all love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?”
Projected work in the future:
- To explore and sample the entire distribution range of Red Panda in India to study population genetics, and the effect of the habitat fragmentation on the populations.
- To conduct awareness program for the conservation of Red Panda and also monitor its illegal poaching and trading.