Thursday, March 5, 2009

China - meeting a red panda

This will be a rather short post but it was a very special encounter for me… one of my all time favourite wildlife encounters. I was at Wawushan in southern Sichuan Province and the road had washed out making travel to and from the mountain difficult. It was raining hard but I had the place almost to myself. I spent a day and a night at the top plateau but more time lower down. In the evening I spotted a large lump in a fruiting tree from a distance. Imagine my elation when I realized that I was looking at the rare and elusive red panda!! I was astounded! People had told me they had spent decades in the Himalayas without ever crossing paths with this species. The panda was feeding on the fruit and seemed blissfully unaware of anything else. You can see how they stick out their tongue to feed. Clearly, although they are generally considered a specialized bamboo feeder, they also consume other items such as fruit.

These small “pandas” are truly stunning – note the strong demarcation between the red body and the black legs, and then of course that beautiful face pattern. I felt so privileged to be watching such a magnificent and secretive animal. Formerly thought to be a smaller cousin of the giant panda, most taxonomist now consider the red panda to be unrelated to the bigger black and white bear they share a name with, but instead they are usually placed in their own family and considered to be related to the mustelids (weasels and allies).

Because the panda was feeding so intently I was able to approach slowly and I eventually got quite close, taking a bunch of photos like this one. In fact, I was so close I couldn't get the whole animal in the frame. You can see the wet fur in this photo (in rained constantly when I was in Sichuan). As it got too dark to take photos I eventually turned around and left the red panda still feeding in the fruiting tree… hard to imagine that I would ever walk away from a red panda but I did!

There weren’t too many other mammals that I saw in China - there is a lot of hunting and illegal trapping and considerable disturbance to many natural areas due to the immense population pressure of 1+ billion people. Nonetheless, there is wildlife to be seen and these Bharal, also known as blue sheep, walking along a very steep cliff face with uncannily confident footwork at Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan were another highlight.

The Himalayan marmot was one of the neat animals I got to see high up in the alpine zone, making their home among the rocks.

More of my photos of mammals are viewable at:

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