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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. Rushh said: October 25, 2011 at 7:35 am

    awesome article, i like the shot of the flying squirrel…

  2. bill said: October 25, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Wow…your living the life I only wish I had chosen years ago ..just amazing I am so jealous

  3. Pat Ulrich said: October 25, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    What an amazing experience, and your photographs are incredible! I cannot imagine the thrill of being so close to such a rare animal!

  4. Mark - Plymouth Wedding Photography said: October 26, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow!

    I’m just looking at getting into wildlife photography as a bit of an escape from weddings and so I’m doing something that is just for me so in my search for inspiration and ideas I found your site. I can’t get over that flying squirrel. Seriously, I didn’t even know something quite like that even existed in the world! The sorts of things I’m likely to find in the UK now are going to be tame by comparison. Stunning!

    I’ve bookmarked the blog and intend on coming back for more inspiration 🙂

  5. Lee Walker said: October 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Great post!
    Love the ‘curious panda’ shot, great perspective!

  6. Rutavi said: November 4, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Being an India, and That Also from Metro There is no possibility of seeing Panda till we travel to other countries..But After being a reader of your blogs and other things..reading this I felt As if I ever get a chance to be your assistant then it would have been really great.

    However, Would to meet yo if You Ever Come To India..

  7. Irene said: November 27, 2011 at 1:11 am

    I am just starting out, the first while I shot anything and everything, I am now experimenting with manual settings and having a blast learning, my passion is wildlife/animal photography, This Panda video and pictures are incredibly inspirational.
    thank you!

  8. Peter Hammer said: December 2, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    What a fabulous encounter with such a wnderful animal. Thanks for sharing it.

  9. Mary from Brooklyn said: December 14, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Beautiful film, photos and blog. This guy has definitely survived at least one fight with another male over a female, i.e. the notched right ear and the facial scars. He may have seen humans before and was just curious about you. You were so smart to step back when he feinted toward you, but you were also so gentle and respectful of him.

    Excellent job.

  10. Maria said: December 15, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    Amazing! Thanks so much for sharing!

  11. judef said: December 25, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Nice footage, was amazed to see the Panda in Action in Real…keep it up

  12. Rose Nowicki said: December 26, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful update. I found it very interesting and touching.
    It was amazing to watch the wild panda slip right by you as if you were not there.
    Your photos are captivating and beautiful. The photo of the golden pheasant is stunning. I was impressed with its multiple colors. I wish you much success in your future adventures.

  13. Jason said: February 21, 2012 at 1:53 am

    Your panda video is fantastic! Did you have any instruction on safety around these animals? As a photographer I tend to put myself out there a little more than I should sometimes, when i see you acting so bold it motivates me to be a little less careful – which could be a good or bad thing. Did you have prior experience? Thanks Jason

  14. Will said: February 21, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Thanks for the comments everyone!
    Jason, I was accompanied by a very experienced ranger. I constantly had one eye on him so that he could direct me if at any point the situation started to get out of hand. I recommend always seeking the help of an experienced guide/researcher/tracker before doing anything that might put yourself or the animal at risk.

  15. Norma said: March 17, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    I really enjoyed watching your short doc on tracking the panda. You are one lucky guy. Thanks for sharing!

  16. matt wagner said: September 21, 2012 at 7:49 am

    wow , it is such a nice panda pictures i really love this thanks for sharing this images with us

  17. Tina said: December 31, 2012 at 4:21 am

    Very cool video and photos! I enjoyed very much!

  18. Kathy L said: May 21, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    Wow, what a fantastic photo and vid. They are such intriguing animals, and you’re so lucky that he let you get so close. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Muhammad akhlaq Farooq said: July 2, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    thanks for sharing , i really enjoyed

  20. Shane Jackson said: November 24, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    I love these images. Like mark said that flying squirrel is amazing. I unfortunately I don’t have time to shoot wildlife photography because I’m just crazy busy with wedding photographer but I always like to see a decant image!

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