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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.