Giant Panda Tracking is a blog post from the Miscellaneous category.

Giant Panda Tracking

Posted by Will on

Earlier this year I spent eight days tracking Giant Pandas in the Qinling Mountains of Central China. This is one of the few remaining places where Giant Pandas exist in the wild. Due to habitat loss and human encroachment, pandas have been pushed into extremely remote and inaccessible parts of China.

I was well aware that finding a wild panda in these thickly forested areas was not going to be easy… in the past, people have spent weeks searching for them without success. I therefore adopted the attitude that I would enjoy the spectacular trekking and it would be a bonus if I glimpsed a panda!

Spring in the beautiful Qinling Mountains.

I soon discovered that wild panda tracking is exceedingly hard work; scrambling up ridge after ridge, fighting through bamboo thickets and boulder-hopping across rivers. I was soon covered in scratches and aching all over! I was led by an expert local tracker who would promptly declare “no panda here” every time we reached a new valley. He explained that he was looking for signs such as fresh droppings or recently chewed bamboo stems. He was also listening out for the unmistakable crunching sounds made by a panda eating bamboo.

One day started with a grueling climb up a brutal incline to the top of a ridge. The gradient was so steep, and the earth underfoot so slippery, that the only way to climb was to grab hold of branches and haul myself (and my 15kgs of camera gear) upwards! As I approached the top of the ridge, my heart skipped a beat as I heard a snap come from the thick bamboo forest below… there could be no doubt that a panda was down there somewhere.

A giant panda doing what it does best... eating bamboo!

The tracker and I approached the noisy panda but it heard us and careered down the slope at an incredible speed. I returned to the ridge dejected – despite being less than 10 metres away, all I had seen was thrashing bamboo stems rippling down the mountain. Then to my shock and amazement we saw a white head and two black ears just 20 metres down the other side of the ridge; there was a second panda sitting there, chomping on bamboo! I felt a tremendous rush of emotion… relief that the effort I had gone to reach this remote part of China had not been in vain; privileged that this iconic and endangered animal was sitting in front of me; and awe at the beauty of it.

A giant panda approaches the camera.
A panda scent-marking a tree. The higher they mark the tree, the larger they appear to rivals, hence the handstand!

From then the experience only got better. The panda came up the slope towards me, passing within touching distance, and proceeded to shamble along the top of the ridge. He was a young male patrolling the boundary of his territory. He stopped to sniff and mark each tree he passed. After ten minutes or so, he lumbered back into the bamboo, plonked himself down and started munching again. At no point did he show any fear and he even treated me with mild curiosity (as you can see from the video below). It was the most incredible animal encounter I have ever had and I am still left pinching myself.

A giant panda munching contentedly on bamboo.
A wild giant panda feeding on bamboo.

Now that the pressure of seeing a panda had been lifted, I was able to enjoy the rest of the trip. We found a couple more pandas but they were concealed deep in the bamboo and I was unable to get clear shots of them.

I discovered that there was an abundance of other amazing wildlife in the Qinling Mountains such as takins, golden monkeys, golden pheasants and flying squirrels.

A golden takin surrounded by bamboo.
A red and white giant flying squirrel coming in to land!

I have put together a short 10-minute documentary that tells the story of my trip and shows me taking some of the photos that appear in this post. The footage really illustrates just how incredible my panda encounter was (if the video does not appear below then click here to view it).

As I approached the end of my time in China, I was able to reflect on the plight of the Giant Panda. It is a sad fact that these beautiful creatures face grave challenges. There are around 1,600 wild pandas but many live in fragmented, unsustainable populations, like small islands surrounded by a sea of humanity. Efforts to increase the number of pandas have been hampered by an extremely low birth rate. Some conservationists say that there is not enough habitat left to sustain pandas in the wild and that the money spent on panda conservation could be better spent elsewhere. Having seen these incredible creatures in the wild, I believe that every penny spent protecting them is well spent. After all, if we cannot protect this global icon of conservation, then what can we protect?

For more Giant Panda photos, visit our China wildlife gallery. If you would like to see China’s wild pandas for yourself, I am able to lead personalized photo tours/trips… if you are interested in joining me then please get in touch.

41 Comments

  1. Suzy W said: October 24, 2011 at 3:57 am

    Wow! Everything on your blog is fantastic and so interesting.
    Wonderful film footage. Thanks for showing it to us.

  2. Dhammiko said: October 24, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Beautiful! Thanks for sharing this.

  3. john said: October 24, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Outstanding.
    what camera gear did you use

  4. John Doyle said: October 24, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Hi all, Your piece of footage was so remarkable and very enjoyable indeed. What a privelage it is to get the opportunity to get so close to these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat. Well done

  5. steppeland said: October 24, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Wonderful story and great pictures! I can imagine that this was a fabulous experience! Just a little bit jealous ;) :D

  6. Tom Svensson said: October 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Amazing
    And this isn’t a panda breed in captivity and put back out again?
    Since it seems use to humans
    What I heard panda are normaly very scared of humans.
    Great photos !

  7. Kerry Libby said: October 24, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Congrats! & thank you for sharing this amazing, once in a lifetime experience! Very satisfying to anyone with a love for animals and/or photography. Your work is truly a pleasure to see, and look forward to seeing what adventures are next :). Keep up the good work!

  8. Deb M said: October 24, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    These are absolutely beautiful photos. Thank you for sharing them. The panda looks like he’s having a great time :)

  9. Will said: October 24, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Thanks guys.
    Tom, their behaviour varies a lot between individuals. This isn’t an area where they are reintroducing pandas. Our tracker had come across this one before and it seems he is just unusually tolerant of people… I was very lucky to find him!

  10. Louise said: October 24, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Thank you so much for this incredible video. You are one lucky dude!

  11. Chaitanya said: October 24, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    very beautiful photos and nice article.

  12. johannes maurits said: October 24, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Thanks for sharing,loved it.

  13. Karen said: October 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    Brilliant footage, what an incredible experience.

  14. Debbie Morris said: October 24, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    I printed your flying squirrel picture and put it up in my high school biology class and boy did my students love it. Anytime you are in Los Angeles feel free to stop into my classroom and give a talk to my students.

  15. Tom Svensson said: October 24, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    Great Will !!
    We are nothing with a great tracker ;-)
    Well done and fantastic photos !

  16. Tom Svensson said: October 24, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Sorry with “out”

  17. cantay gok said: October 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    a unique encounter, amaizing…

  18. Wayan mawa said: October 24, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Very well noted! That exotic animals are so amazing! Live, eat, play only in the bamboo community! Thank to you, to surely make available for publicly view and important for us to know about this giant panda! Super guys!

  19. Daphne Dale said: October 24, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Wow! What an amazing experience. Lucky you. Thanks for sharing…lovely little film.

  20. Sylvia Walker said: October 25, 2011 at 4:39 am

    A wonderful and fantastic video!!! What an exciting once in a life time adventure!! I enjoyed pictures and video completely!!!

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