A veteran zookeeper at Hamilton Zoo in New Zealand, Sarah Jones has been actively involved with the Red Panda Network for more than 10 years. Initially serving as a field research assistant for the organization, Sarah now plays an important role in hosting RPN’s Zoo Staff and Volunteer Ecotrips, a unique field expedition specifically geared toward wildlife professionals.
Sarah’s professional career began in 2000, when, as part of her Animal Care and Veterinary Assistance training, she took a two-week work experience opportunity at Auckland Zoo. “I was placed in the zoo’s “Pridelands” section, where I worked with African hoofstock animals,” she remembers. “Africa’s large mammals had fascinated me from a young age, and now, working alongside passionate staff with these awe-inspiring animals, I knew I had found my place. To my delight, at the end of the two weeks, I was offered a full-time position as a trainee keeper.”
During her training at Auckland Zoo, Sarah had the chance to encounter a variety of animals, but one in particular caught her attention: a furry little mammal known as the red panda. “Prior to working at Auckland Zoo, I’d known very little about red pandas, but when I first met them in person, I felt I’d never seen such a beautiful and delicate animal,” she recounts. “Later, it occurred to me that if I, an animal enthusiast, hadn’t known about the red pandas, it was unlikely that the general public was aware of them and their plight as an endangered species. This sparked a resounding passion within me, and marked the beginning of my close relationship with these incredible creatures.”
A few years later, after taking a keeper position at Hamilton Zoo, Sarah learned of a newly founded organization dedicated to red panda conservation. She reached out to the then-named Red Panda Project, and was invited to come to Nepal and serve as a field research assistant. In addition to her passion for red pandas, Sarah’s prior experience volunteering at wildlife parks and zoos throughout Southeast Asia made her an ideal candidate for the venture. Beginning in November of 2006, she spent three months in the Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung (PIT) corridor working with a small team to establish transect lines, conduct field surveys, and train area locals on red panda tracking and data collection.
Later, Sarah collaborated with RPN founder Brian Williams to conceive of a unique opportunity for zookeepers and other wildlife professionals to experience the red panda in its natural habitat. “We started advertising the Zoo Staff and Volunteer Ecotrips at the end of 2014, and embarked on our first one the following March,” she says. “Our second trip followed in November. Both trips were great successes, so we decided to continue offering them on a biannual basis.”
We asked Sarah some questions to learn more about RPN’s Zoo Staff and Volunteer Ecotrips.
Q: What makes the Zoo Staff and Volunteer Ecotrips different from the regular Ecotrips RPN offers?
A: The Zoo Staff and Volunteer trips are unique in that they offer wildlife professionals the opportunity to experience wild Nepal with a team of likeminded people. Since it is geared toward professionals, the trip has a more hands-on itinerary than RPN’s regular Ecotrips, and its duration spans an additional four days, including more days spent tracking red pandas with the RPN Forest Guardians. Our hope is that each participant goes home slightly changed by their experience, making them a more passionate and educated ambassador for red pandas, Nepal and RPN.
Q: How many Zoo Staff and Volunteer Ecotrips take place each year?
A: We do two trips each year, one in March and one in November. March is a beautiful time to be in the Nepalese forests as they awaken from winter, with the Magnolia, Rhododendron and Daphne beginning to flower, and bamboo beginning to shoot. It’s also a time of high red panda activity, as their diet blossoms with the seasonal variation of fruiting trees, and the females prepare to wean their cubs. The November trip is another beautiful time of year in Nepal, as the forest floor is scattered with fallen leaves, cool winter temperatures begin to settle, and the red pandas are actively feasting on the last of the tree fruits.
Q: What are some of the major topographical and cultural sites of interest we’re going to see?
A: Some of the main sites we will see include:
- Swayambhunath, Kathmandu’s popular Buddhist temple situated on a high hilltop. Also known as the “Monkey Temple,” it is a sensory extravaganza of carvings, devotees, prayer wheels and other architectural features.
- Patan Durbar Square, once the royal palace of the former Kathmandu Kingdom, and Kathmandu’s most spectacular legacy of traditional architecture.
- Ilam, famous the world over for its tea gardens and Ilam tea.
- Sandakpur. At 3,636 meters, Ilam’s highest peak offers breathtaking views of the surrounding region.
- Dobate, a prime red panda habitat located on a ridge above the Mai Valley.
Q: Am I guaranteed to see a red panda on the trip?
A: You aren’t guaranteed to see a red panda, simply because they are in the wild. However, with the highly skilled Forest Guardians helping us track them, it’s very likely. On both of last year’s trips, we were fortunate to have unique red panda sightings on two different days.
Q: The description page says we might see leopards, bears and jackals. This is safe, right?
A: Participants can feel at ease while in the field with our experienced team. All of the Forest Guardians have lived their lives in the forests and are very well versed in identifying the signs of these species and what actions to take.
Q: It looks like we’re going to be traveling and lodging at high altitudes. Can this be an issue for some travelers?
A: While various altitudes are experienced throughout the course of the trip, this happens at a gradual, consistent pace, which allows participants time to acclimate. Since we spend a significant amount of time walking through the Himalayan foothills, the trip does require a basic level of fitness and the ability to walk for periods of up to 4 hours on various terrain and slopes.
Q: Do you personally have a favorite part of the trip?
A: My favorite part is the moment when the trip participants are rewarded with their first red panda sighting. It’s such a beautiful, emotional experience – tears flow, and every face is glowing.
Q: How will my participation in a Zoo Staff and Volunteer Ecotrip benefit the Red Panda Network and its mission?
A: As a not-for-profit organization, RPN relies solely on donations and volunteer support. Therefore, a large part of each participant’s trip cost goes to supporting RPN and their mission to establish the Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung Red Panda Protected Forest – the world’s first protected area dedicated to red pandas.
Q: I’m not sure I’m ready for such a big trip. How else can I support the Red Panda Network and its mission?
There are many other ways to support RPN right from your home. The website is a great place to start, as it lists a number of options, from buying merchandise and helping with fundraising to adopting a red panda and sponsoring a Forest Guardian. Also, social media is a fantastic medium for sharing the vital work of RPN and spreading awareness of the red panda.
If you have any questions regarding our Zoo Staff and Volunteer Ecotrips, or are interested in joining Sarah Jones on one of these unforgettable adventures, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find more information and a list of our upcoming trips here.
Writing and Communications Volunteer
Red Panda Network