This exciting new holiday focuses on the rich wildlife of the eastern Himalaya and, in particular, a quest to track down and observe the elusive Red Panda — an iconic mammal, sought after by many but seen by very few. In an attempt to achieve our goal, we focus on the last remaining areas of temperate oakrhododendron forest in the far east of Nepal. Here, in the Himalayan foothills, not far from the Indian hill-station of Darjeeling and the shadows of Kanchenjunga (the world’s third highest mountain), Red Pandas are not uncommon. Until recently, however, they were rarely seen. Now, thanks to the work of the Nepalese scientists who have been tracking and researching the species in this area with the help of local forest guards, we at last have a chance of observing the Red Panda in the wild.
In fact, these forests are well known to Naturetrek staff, tour leaders and some clients, as we have explored them regularly over the past 30 years or so, looking for their rare birds — in particular those east Himalayan specialities not found elsewhere in Nepal. Such avian gems as Bay Woodpecker, Large Niltava, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Hill Prinia, Yellowbellied Warbler, Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-throated Wren Babbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Cutia, Blackheaded Shrike Babbler, Rusty-fronted and Hoary-throated Barwing, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Brown and Black-throated Parrotbill, Maroon-backed Accentor and eight species of laughingthrush have been among our target species in the past, and we will look for such special species again on this tour.
To reach the area chosen for our Red Panda quest, we must fly first to Kathmandu, and onward to Bhadrapur in the fertile lowlands of east Nepal. From here we will take a long but scenic drive, on a metalled road, up into the pleasant green hills around Ilam. This small town, set amongst terraced hills and tea gardens, is the centre for tea production in the country — Nepal’s Darjeeling. From here we complete our journey into the hills using the dirt road to Dobate, a tiny Sherpa village where we will set up a tented base-camp for a 3-night stay. En route we will pass heavily cultivated terraced fields which rise steeply, like steps, for thousands of feet above the shady river valleys, watered by tumbling streams whose deep hillside ravines harbour remnant subtropical vegetation and towering bamboos, the home of scimitar babblers, sibias, piculets, minlas and other exotic birds.
It is in the higher temperate forests between Dobate and Hange Tham, however, that we will search for Red Pandas. This is a marvellous region of dense, damp forest, where oaks, rhododendrons and magnolias, decorated with mosses, lichens and epiphytic orchids, support an outstanding range of Himalayan birds and mammals. Here, we will use the local forest trails to access known roosts and feeding areas in the company of the local forest guards who have been monitoring the species in association with the Red Panda Network (RPN). We will spend two days on foot, from our tented base camp at Dobate, before trekking on for a day to Hange Tham. There we will set up a second base camp for two nights to allow us to explore the similarly excellent forest above this second Sherpa village.
The Red Panda (also known as the Fire Fox or Lesser Panda), like its relative the Giant Panda, also eats bamboo, although not exclusively. It is a solitary animal and, although found in China, India, Burma (Myanmar) and Bhutan, as well as Nepal, relatively little is known about its behaviour and distribution owing to its preference for remote mountain forests lying between 2,200 and 4,800 metres (7,200 and 15,700 feet) in altitude. In particular, the species favours mixed deciduous and conifer forest with abundant old trees and a dense understorey of bamboo. That habitat is found here, and it is favoured also by such other mammals as Leopard, Leopard Cat, Serow, Large Indian Civet, Yellow-throated Marten and Himalayan Orange-bellied Squirrel, a sighting of any one of which must be considered a bonus.
We conclude our visit to the area with a final night in Ilam, before driving to Bhadrapur for a flight to Kathmandu then London. However, for those wishing to extend their holiday, we offer an extension to Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, one of Asia’s finest wetlands. Here, a remnant population of wild Water Buffalo may be seen, as well as such other mammals as Ganges River Dolphin, Jungle Cat, Golden Jackal, and even the endangered Fishing Cat, amongst others. Our base, the delightful and tranquil Koshi Camp, is also a birder’s paradise. Up to 160 bird species may be seen in a single day; amongst them such local specialities as Rednecked Falcon, Striated Grassbird and the endangered Swamp Francolin and Bengal Florican. Indian Courser, Small Pratincole, Pallas’s Gull, Black-bellied Tern, Siberian Rubythroat and Smoky Warbler will be amongst other target species, whilst the Black, Cinnamon and Yellow Bitterns resident at Koshi Camp are always a crowd pleaser! A full day on Phulchowki Mountain (a top site for birds, flowers and mountain views), from Kathmandu, is also included in this extension.