The elusive Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) is undoubtedly one of nature’s most alluring creatures. Its distinctive fur has earned this species monikers such as “Firefox”, “Firecat”, or “Fire-coloured cat”, and won it admirers from around the globe. Unfortunately, the Red Panda is a threatened species, with an estimated population of less than 10,000 remaining in the wild.
Around half of the Red Panda’s natural habitat lies in the Eastern Himalayas – Nepal, Sikkim, northern West Bengal, Bhutan, and Arunachal Pradesh. Its remaining home is in northern Myanmar and a few provinces of central China. I work as a naturalist and photo mentor in the heart of Red Panda habitat: Singalila National Park, situated in the northernmost part of West Bengal, sandwiched between Nepal and Sikkim.
My first encounter with the Red Panda was in 2015, on my fourth visit to Singalila (it’s difficult to spot them if luck doesn’t favour you). I will never forget the moment that I spotted the cutest individual feeding on new leaves in the dense Himalayan bamboo forest. I’d seen these animals in books, documentaries and at the Darjeeling Zoo, but that first eye contact in the wilderness was an intimate and unforgettable experience. The Himalayan forest is dense and finding the appropriate light for photography is tough. Out of all the times I’ve photographed them, I have managed to do so in good light only 5 to 6 times. In March 2016, I was blessed with a sighting that felt like one in a million – a Red Panda mother with two cubs.
Sightings are not just about photography. Over time, I learnt more about this creature. I noticed that, for example, under threat, it sometimes stood on its hind legs to appear larger. Or that it could taste the air and analyse the vapour content in it through its mouth and tongue to test its surroundings for predators.
Although Red Pandas are rarely seen in the wild anymore, I have had the opportunity to photograph them on many occasions over the past three years – 43 times, actually, but I am just as excited every single time.
Click through (above) to view the photo story.