What better way to experience conservation in action than to travel to the Himalayas on an ecotrip with the Red Panda Network? These excursions provide participants the chance to not only witness red panda conservation, but also to explore Nepalese culture first-hand.
This month, we caught up with two former ecotrippers to ask them about their experiences in Nepal with the Red Panda Network.
What prompted you to go on an ecotrip with the Red Panda Network?
Kate: “First and foremost, my love of red pandas. But, as a whole, I was drawn to the concept of it being an inclusive trip in terms of culture and experience of Nepal. It seemed important to really understand and encompass community-based conservation.”
Lauren: “I fell in love with red pandas on a July 2013 visit to my local zoo, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. The following year, my boyfriend suggested that I look into guided wildlife trips catered specifically for seeing red pandas. I immediately fell in love with the idea. RPN seemed trustworthy and, from looking at the trip description, the most bang for my buck. So I contacted RPN and reserved my spot on the ecotrip.”
Did you see a red panda?
Kate: We did see red panda: two actually! We felt very lucky, as we learned on the trip that there are some Forest Guardians employed that have never seen a red panda in the wild. This really put into perspective how important their conservation is.
Lauren: “I did get to see one red panda. The red panda seemed to be a cub – maybe six months old. It was alone, and it was just climbing up and down the tree, with some moments of sitting on a branch and looking warily at us. It knew we were there, but didn’t seem alarmed — more curious/cautious, in an ‘Are you going to harm me? I’m keeping my eye on you,’ sort of way.”
What kind of other wildlife did you see?
Kate: “We saw a pair of yellow-throated martens hunting together to catch a squirrel. We saw more birds that I could ever list! It is important for future participants to know that birding will be a significant portion of your time in the forest. As we all know, pandas are shy and elusive, so trying to find them or waiting for the guardians to track them means a lot of time in the forest taking in your surroundings. That often times means birds! For me, I was very excited to see Griffon’s vultures multiple times and parakeets during our time in the field.”
Lauren: “We saw a ton of birds. I’m not a birder, but I did take tons of photos of birds. We also saw giant fruit bats in Katmandu itself. They were literally hanging in trees along a very busy, exhaust-choked street in broad daylight.”
What was the group like?
Kate: “The group was small, about ten people in total, not including our guides. Most of our group was zoo/wildlife industry people. To spend this much time with like-minded people was rewarding. We got to share stories, information and details with each other about our captive panda experience. The point of the trip that I participated in was that all of us would be from the industry which meant we would not have to spend time going over red panda issues, status, and behavior in Nepal.”
Lauren: “The group was amazing. Our group had seven ecotrippers, one RPN volunteer, and two RPN employees. Only two of the group members were zookeepers – the rest of us included: a biologist, a nurse, bankers on their honeymoon, and a recently graduated high school student. We came from Europe, North America, and Australia.”
What about the staff and guides?
Kate: “We could not have been happier! All RPN from Nepal were AMAZING and helped to make this trip such a once in a lifetime experience. It starts with your time in Thamel and Kathmandu. In the field, we were just as impressed! Our assigned guides were always attentive and focused on keeping us together and safe!”
Lauren: “The staff was very knowledgeable about red pandas. We got to meet some forest guardians too at an anti-poaching training they were having in Ilam. That was pretty cool. We kind of had a Q & A session with them. They were allowed to ask us questions. They were mostly interested in hearing from the zookeepers about how they take care of the red pandas in their care.”
How was it traveling around Nepal?
Kate: “Traveling around Nepal was an experience to say the least. One piece of advice that would serve anyone well once in the country of Nepal is to not be in a hurry! With so much congestion, time schedules rarely mean much, so prepare to wait!”
Lauren: “Traveling around Nepal was definitely different from any other country I’ve been to. Our trip to Ilam was relatively smooth on mostly paved roads. Our trip to Dobate, however, was on a Jeep over dirt roads, so it was pretty bouncy most of the time – kind of like being on a jerky Universal Studios ride for five hours. One cool thing about Jeeps is that you can drive through rivers in them, which we did going back to Ilam at the end of the ecotrip.”
What did you think of the accommodations?
Kate: “The accommodations went beyond our expectations as they were described to us. The hotel was clean and the staff was exceptional. All of our home stays in the field were clean, quaint and so welcoming. To be honest, I expected less and the Nepal RPN staff worked to prepare us for what it would be like in the field. I was pleasantly surprised! Follow your pack list and bring all items suggested! That being said, pack as light as possible. Your Forest Guardians will be carrying your gear at some point for a very long full day walk. There will only be a few of them, so they will carry multiple packs alone!”
Lauren: “You don’t go on an ecotrip for luxurious accommodations, so I think your expectations have to be in that mindset.”
What was one of your most memorable moments on the trip?
Kate: “Seeing our first red panda. As a photo bug, the lighting and surroundings were not phenomenal, but that forced me to put the camera down at some point and enjoy the moment in real time. A passion for animals and their wild environments has fueled my entire career. So, to be standing in the bamboo forests of Nepal looking at a red panda that was living and hopefully thriving in the wild was very surreal and inspiring. It gave the trip and all it’s expenses, the travel and all my husband’s worries about letting me go into the forests with no contact an entirely bigger meaning!”
Lauren: “Besides seeing the red panda…seeing the sun rise over Mt. Kangchenjunga at Sandaphur, as well as being able to see Mt. Everest.”
“The friends I made on the trip. Learning about their cultures and about their lives. It’s just something about the shared experience of the ecotrip that makes me feel close to them, even if, in our daily lives, we don’t have the same interests.”
Were your expectations for the ecotrip met? Better question: would you do the trip again?
Kate: “Yes and YES, without hesitation! I would also add more time on the front or back of the trip to take in other parts of the country.”
Lauren: “Yes and yes. I went in with the mindset of not at all knowing what to expect, so besides expecting to see a red panda (which, honestly, was more of a burning hope than an expectation) I really didn’t have any preconceived notions of how the trip was going to be. As a result I had an absolute blast. I am trying to figure out ways to supplement my income to go back on the ecotrip ASAP.”
What would you say to someone who is considering going on an ecotrip with Red Panda Network?
Kate: “Do it! Get your resources together and do it! I went with a friend and fellow red panda enthusiast which made my trip that much more enjoyable!”
Lauren: “Go-but only if you’re looking for something adventurous. This is not a trip for someone who wants a stress-free, luxurious trip. It’s “roughing it” without camping in the woods.”
If you had to describe the ecotrip in one word, what would it be?