Red Panda Ecotrips: An Inside Story with Kuniko Kai

Red Panda Ecotrips: An Inside Story with Kuniko Kai

Madison Lusk
January 30, 2024 / 5 mins read

Learn about the unique and unforgettable journey of an RPN ecotrip directly from an ecotripper; Kuniko Kai shares her experiences traveling to Nepal and seeing wild red pandas!

Red Panda Network (RPN) ecotrips are a unique guided travel experience through the Himalayan Cloud Forests of Nepal. When traveling with RPN, you gain an insider perspective into the lives of wild red pandas and the communities that live alongside them.

Guided by local experts, these 8-12 day trips are curated with the nature lover in mind – treks through a global biodiversity hotspot are led by expert trackers who offer an immersive experience into the landscapes of this breathtaking ecosystem.

Ecotrippers trekking through the Eastern Himalayan Broadleaf Forest by Jim Lang, 2022

Kuniko Kai, a baker and nursing home worker from Japan, traveled with us to Nepal for the first time in 2018, where she experienced this beauty firsthand. Since then, she has become an advocate and educator for red panda conservation, giving red panda talks at schools in her local community. She is signed up for her third ecotrip with us in the spring of 2024!

We sat down with her to discuss her experiences traveling with us on red panda ecotrips in Nepal. She shared her impressions of the natural world around her, the local people she met, and the red pandas they found along the way.

Kuniko Kai (Blue sweater and glasses in the top left) with her Ecotrip group, March, 2019.

Kuniko’s love of red pandas brought her to Nepal on a RPN ecotrip. She first learned about red pandas through her daughter, whose favorite stuffed animal was a red panda. When Kuniko’s daughter chose the red panda as her subject for a science project, they sat down together to research them. “The more I spent time on the red pandas, the more I wanted to know about them,” she explained.

As Kuniko grew to love red pandas for all their unique cuteness, she found that simply researching red pandas wasn’t enough. She wanted to see them in person, and in their natural habitat. “I started the science project with my daughter and then I wanted to visit either China, Nepal, or Bhutan, where you can see the red panda in the wild.”

After comparing travel options, she ultimately chose RPN for her travel experience, “and then I went to Nepal to see the actual red panda in the wild. They're so cute, that's how I fell in love with red pandas.”

We plan our ecotrips for red panda lovers like Kuniko; a highlight of the trips is the tracking and viewing of red pandas in their native habitat. Our trips are timed for their most active times of year – spring and fall – and are led by local red panda experts and trackers.

Wild red panda during ecotrip by Kuniko Kai, 2018

The red panda’s homeland in Nepal is one of the most beautiful and biodiverse regions in the world. While tracking red pandas, our ecotrippers experience the full range of beauty of the Himalayan Cloud Forests on guided treks into the mountains.

Kuniko was nervous about this aspect of the trip, having never trekked on mountain ranges like the Himalayas. However, when she joined us for her trip in Nepal’s Ilam district, she found the hiking to be challenging but rewarding.

“The destination was a central area and they say that's the hardest. The altitude is about 3,000-4000 feet, it’s quite high and we walk a lot. That was the first time for me to climb up that high of a mountain and I was worried… but I exercise a lot so I had no problem going up the high altitude. But the sky! The stars at night that I saw at the base camp, that was amazing. Also, the red pandas that we found… There were two red pandas we found there. That was a really, really amazing experience.”

Our ecotrips are rated as moderate to strenuous difficulty with frequent hiking through forest paths. Though physically challenging, the hikes are worth it for ecotrippers like Kuniko when they see the breathtaking sights and endangered species only accessible via walking paths.

The Himalayas by Jim Lang, 2022.

RPN ecotrips are more than just a nature viewing experience. Unlike other travel companies, RPN connects ecotrippers with the rural communities of the Himalayan Cloud Forests through local homestays, tea houses, and hotels.

For Kuniko, this was a highlight of her experience. When asked to share a memory that was meaningful to her from her time with us in Nepal, she said first, quite simply, “everything is meaningful.”

She thought for a moment then told us a story about spending time with the local people in the afternoons.

“They opened up their world and welcomed us. That was very warm and very sweet and we had a really good experience there. Maybe that's the one reason that I keep coming back, I just enjoy all the kindness.”

She went on to explain that her time connecting with the communities of Nepal really opened her eyes to different ways of living, away from technology and connected with nature. “I really felt… being human is quite precious,” she said.

Since her last visit to Nepal, Kuniko has dedicated to learning Nepali, one of the languages spoken by the local people. She hopes to connect more intimately with the people of Nepal when she returns this year, speaking to them in their own language.

Ecotrippers, including Kuniko Kai, alongside local Homestay Staff. March, 2019

RPN ecotrips offer a holistic, well-rounded cultural and ecological experience. From treks through the Himalayas to cooking classes with locals, there is simply no other trip out there that offers such an in-depth perspective into the rural communities of the Eastern Himalayas.

When asked what she would say to someone considering joining an RPN ecotrip, Kuniko exclaimed, “Oh definitely, they must join, they should go!” And we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Join us for the journey of a lifetime on one of our upcoming ecotrips and experience red panda country for yourself, all while supporting sustainable livelihoods for local communities!