Sometimes the smallest things cause the biggest problems in this job. Indeed, standing down a polar bear on the sea ice or dodging a charging – and slightly upset – rhino can be a lot less arduous than seeking out the planet’s smaller, softer denizens.
Exhibit “A” in this regard is a shoot I took a couple of months ago to show the red panda in all its glory. This rare, secretive mammal (no actual relation to the Giant Panda incidentally, but cursed with the name through a mis-translation in a dim distant past), has been threatened across its range, but in some pockets remained relatively numerous. These areas are the great hope for the species in the future and conservation efforts aimed at joining the dots between fragmented forests, are geared at ensuring a long term survival.
Despite its rarity, however, I was confident. These beautiful, scarlet-furred kinsmen of raccoons (for that is their closest relative) would surely be easy to pick out in a sea of green? Added to that, they sleep a great deal, eat nothing more dangerous than bamboo and I’d be working with some of the most experienced trackers in the business. What is more, I had two weeks to document their lives – all in all, an assignment that was surely heaven sent.
How wrong I was.
Firstly, there was the altitude and the terrain. From the relative sanity of sea-level London to exiting a ‘plane in Bagdogra in north-east India I rapidly ascended to my base camp at around 11,000 feet with no time to get used to the change in oxygen levels. The trackers rocketed up even the most vertiginous of slopes, without the need, it seemed, to take a breath. It would seem there is no Nepalese word for “sweat” as it clearly is something that simply never features in their day to day lives.
Of course, my initial thought that spotting bright red fur in a forest would be relatively easy was also proved, well, idiotic. Within hours of the first day, I realized that the preferred areas for these little guys were broad-leaf canopies (i.e. those allowing minimal light through just to make matters worse) with a thick bamboo undergrowth. When I say “thick”, I don’t really do it justice. Imagine, therefore, ten thousand cricket stumps, all about 3-5 metres high, packed into an area the size of a small flowerpot, and you get an idea of “density” My entire day was spent attempting to push through them carrying 25kg of backpack. Joy, it was not. “Don’t grab the green ones Mr Andy” would be the shout…usually too late as the offending stalk would simply snap in my grasp and send me tumbling back down the slope I’d just spent about a month attempting to climb up.
Finally, there was the weather. I would watch, bewildered, as my guides ascended into the forests from mountain paths when on the scent of a panda, and I even had a resigned sense of dread whenever I heard the faint cries of “Over here Mr Andy, we’ve got one” and I knew my next task would be to scale a near-vertical slope before the mist and cloud – which raced up the hillsides and cloaked the forest in an impenetrable wall of grey – would render the sighting pointless.
Easy, therefore it was not. Rewarding however, when flashes of red did finally lock into my viewfinder, it most certainly was.
If you would be interested in experiencing all that the Tichule Forest has to offer, then get in touch…