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Giant Panda Expedition

Giant Panda Expedition

Of the several thousand mammal species in the world, the vast majority are not known to the general public. Mention an obscure rodent or bat species and most people don’t have the faintest idea of what you are talking about. The larger mammals are usually more in the picture, but also in that category there are plenty of examples of animals that are not so well known. Often when I am going to look for a special cat, I have to explain more than once which cat it is exactly and where it can be found. This is not so much the case for species such as Tiger, but a species like Rusty-spotted Cat doesn’t ring so many bells. The species I went to look for during Christmas and New Year 2023/2024 I didn’t have to introduce to anyone.

After all, everyone has heard of the Giant Panda. It is an iconic species in several aspects. The animal only lives in China and that country has elevated it to be its national mascot. Giant Pandas are even an official part of China’s diplomatic relations with other countries. Only when the diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China are good, another country will be offered to opportunity to care for a Giant Panda or two. However, the animals remain the property of the state of China. The Giant Panda is also the logo of the largest nature conservation organization in the world: the WWF. The Giant Panda is therefore synonymous with nature conservation as well as with the country of China.

I personally have planned to see all the cats in the world and all the bears in the world. There are eight species of bear in the world and the Giant Panda is one of them. Basically just one more ‘tick on the list’, but of course this species is much more than that. Giant Panda’s look like no other animal and unlike most other iconic land animals, the Giant Panda is also very difficult to see in the wild these days. For years there was a good opportunity in the Foping nature reserve where tourists could go into the bamboo with local trackers and see a Giant Panda. There was a fuss about this in 2011. It is still unclear to me what exactly happened, stories vary, but the result was that overnight the Chinese government put an end to the sightings of wild Giant Pandas in Foping. Afterwards, it became increasingly difficult to see Giant Pandas in other places. For years, seeing Giant Pandas seemed like an impossible task for the non-Chinese. Even the Chinese seldom saw a Giant Panda. It was therefore not seriously attempted by foreigners to see one anymore.

In 2019, some travel reports suddenly surfaced talking about a new place where Giant Pandas were possible again. This place was referred to as ‘Place X’. At that location, Giant Pandas would sometimes climb in trees, after which they could be viewed from a few hundred meters away. Found only by carefully scanning the trees. The exact location was kept secret to limit the risk of it being closed. A number of different sightings were made at Place X. Then corona came and China went into lockdown. Many countries went in lockdown, but China was basically the first to go and the last to open. Also it was so strict that travel for touristic purposes was basically impossible.

Only at the beginning of 2023 was it possible to travel to and within the country without major restrictions. It was unclear what the chances still were at Place X, but the first reports were hopeful. Some foreign mammal watchers managed to see a Giant Panda. Afterwards it turned out that, as far as I know, no photos were taken in 2023 and that the sightings were very brief of an animal moving through the shrubs and trees. One person saw a panda far away in a tree.

In the summer of 2023, Jan Kelchtermans from Belgium placed a call on mammalwatching.com for others to join a trip with the purpose of looking for Giant Pandas in China during Christmas and New Year. Coincidentally, I was already planning a trip for that period, but Jan’s proposal aroused my interest. All it took was one phone call and in a relatively short time the flights were booked and the trip was planned. In addition to Jan, an American, Daniël Dahan, also accompanied us. We were going to meet up in the Chinese city of Chengdu from where we would depart for the hotel that would be our base of operations for the next two weeks.

We were going to approach this a little differently than other tours had done before us. The plan was that we would invest two full weeks in trying to find a Giant Panda. That meant that we had to give up many other species in China right at the start. We were ambitious after all: not only did we aim for just a Giant Panda sighting, but we also wanted to see it at a distance of less than a few hundred meters! The observations that had been reported in the past gave me the impression that we had a very good chance of seeing that Giant Panda in any case and I thought this species was certainly worth making some extra effort for. The area is also said to be the domain of small pandas and that was also a dream species for me that I wanted to photograph well. So it was a true Giant Panda Expedition.

On December 23, 2023, I arrived in Chengdu. There I met the others and we headed to our hotel. I consciously do not reveal exactly where we have been in order to hopefully give others the opportunity to pursue their own opportunities for a Giant Panda. Sid Francis will certainly be able to help with that and if people have questions, I am of course always willing to help where I can. In any case, it was important for us that we had our local driver ZZ with us, who has a four-wheel drive car. We certainly exploited that particular feature of the car.

We spent the entire first day at the famous ‘Place X’. We saw the trees where others before us had photographed the pandas in a few years earlier. It felt like we were really close: now for some pandas of our own! The first morning of scanning began. At one point I thought I saw a Giant Panda: a large white spot on a mountainside and it actually seemed to have black around its eyes and seemed to move! However, it turned out to be a large bee’s nest with the moving branches causing confusion. Nevertheless, I went all the way over there on foot to be completely sure, but it was indeed not a Giant Panda. The morning passed without us seeing a Giant Panda. Around 11 o’clock in the morning the sun rose above the mountainside and the backlight prevented us from scanning properly.

It would go on like this for nine days. The places we visited did vary. Place X we visited basically every day because it was known to us as the place that had delivered the best sightings, but through a tip of someone else we had found another good place in the meantime. A reliable sighting had been made here in the summer. We climbed some mountainsides until we found a spot where we could get a good look at the trees and which we could reach relatively easily. After three days we had developed a schedule following which we went to this place in the morning and to Place X in the afternoon. Sometimes there was excitement, but in the end it always turned out to be another animal, a bee’s nest or a piece of light tree bark. The local goats in particular did us no good: there were actually black and white ones that could move quite quietly through the bamboo.

Our nemesis: the local cattle

Great was our joy when on day 4 we found our first tangible evidence of the presence of a Giant Panda in the form of two panda turds.

A Giant Panda turd: basically just bamboo pressed together

However, that joy faded away when those finds were not followed by an actual sighting of a panda. We ended 2023 without a Giant Panda and 2024 began. The week started that we would be able to finish at these places. On New Year’s Day, on Monday,, we knew we had only four days ahead of us to find a Giant Panda. What should we do differently to finally be successful? I couldn’t think of it. Dreams of seeing the Giant Panda up close had long before gone out of the window: we simply wanted to see one now. It seemed like we had overestimated our initial chances.

In any case: we wouldn’t return empty-handed. We had seen that Red Panda that I really wanted to see. And really well too!

Red Panda

I also really wanted to see the Golden Snub-nosed Monkey. This monkey is also endemic to China and it is a beautiful monkey. It was still uncertain whether we would see this species, but fortunately there was a group in the new area that we often saw. On the very first day we had an alpha male nearby high up in a tree.

Golden Snub-nosed Monkey

Some days later we were lucky with a group close to the road.

Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys

I was even able to shoot some nice video.

There was also a number of beautiful birds. I am always a fan of the laughingthrushes and we were able to see three species very well. In particular, I was happy to see the Giant Laughingthrush.

Elliot’s Laughingthrush

Black-faced Laughingthrush

Giant Laughingthrush

There were also a number of special tits, including the endemic Père David’s Tit.

Père Davids Tit

Other species groups that we also have in the Netherlands, such as the bullfinches and grosbeaks, had their own representatives here.

Collared Grosbeak

Grey-headed Bullfinch

However, the nutcracker was just the same as the one at home.

Spotted Nutcracker

I actually saw Ring-necked Pheasant which is a very common (although not originally wild) bird in the Netherlands. I didn’t have a photo of it though. So I was very pleased to chance upon a Lady Amherst’s Pheasant on the trail. I had not seen that species before and the sighting was excellent.

Lady Amherst’s Pheasant

The mountain streams contained both Brown Dipper and White-throated Dipper.

Brown Dipper

White-throated Dipper

The Little Forktail also feels very much at home in the water.

Little Forktail

Other primates were there in the form of Tibetan Macaques.

Tibetan Macaque

We also often saw a Tufted Deer. This species has some kind of fangs that make it look like a vampire.

Tufted Deer

An animal we saw even more often was the Swinhoes Striped Squirrel. A nice little squirrel with funny eartufts.

Swinhoes Striped Squirrel

I was even able to photograph a new species for my cat list! I had glimpsed the Mainland Leopard Cat already in India, but it was too fast for pictures. On one of the evenings when we drove back to the hotel, I had already gotten a much better observation of a Mainland Leopard Cat that was briefly sitting on the roadside, but I had no photo of it. I was fast enough with an animal that was quite far away. The photo is not good, but the cat is recognizable!

Mainland Leopard Cat

And in any case we always had the area itself which certainly was also something to get out of bed for.

Sichuan Mountains

Enough icing on the cake, but where was the cake itself? It was all very well, but not nearly enough compensation for when we would actually missed the Giant Panda. And that’s what it was starting to look like.

Tuesday arrived. In the morning we went to our usual spot. We walked quite a bit. We also came across a Mountain Hawk-Eagle that was beautifully visible in a tree.

Mountain Hawk-Eagle

When we got back to the car, a flock of Black-browed Tits just passed by.

Black-browed Tit

I was happy that I finally had good photos of this species, but I was disappointed when Daniël’s photos later showed that there had been a single Père David’s Tit in the group that I had missed. The species was still new to me at that time. The flock had already passed, but I set out to try to find them again. However, that didn’t work and just as I wanted to turn back, the car came towards me, driving down the road.

I got in and we drove on. I did leave the window open to listen to listen for the flock of tits. We turned another corner and slowly went down the road. Suddenly there was a Giant Panda standing on the side of the road in the sun! I could not believe my eyes. The first thing I noticed was that it was such a pale bear with a noticeably dirty butt. The animal had been sitting there on the side of the road and he had gotten up when he heard the car. I focused my camera as quickly as possible and took the first photos. The panda turned around and walked calmly down the road and around the bend.

Giant Panda

In the car we celebrated our unexpected success as quietly as possible. We quickly went after the panda on foot after that because it looked like we might be able to see it again. That was indeed the case because after the bend we saw the Giant Panda standing still on the edge of the mountain. Just as I was taking position for new photos he went down into the bamboo. We followed him there briefly as he walked through the bamboo, but we quickly lost him.

Giant Panda

Now we could really start celebrating. We couldn’t believe it had worked this way. After hours of scanning trees, the animal was just standing on the side of the road! It was an old male Giant Panda with a large size. That was probably the same animal that we found the scat of some days ago. The mountain slopes in this place were not really densely covered with bamboo, but the animal had still managed to hide in there for six days! This observation felt more than deserved because of the effort we had put into it, but at the same time we also realized that we had been very lucky. Our joy was certainly all the more great after the days of fruitless searching!

Happy Team! From left to right: me, ZZ, Jan Kelchtermans and Daniël Dahan

The remaining days didn’t matter anymore so we took our time to see if we could find any more animals. This phase is always a wonderful feeling. The day after our Giant Panda sighting it actually started to snow. This immediately made it harder for us to reach the places to scan with the 4×4, so we were glad that this had not happened before. However the snow give us a dream sighting of two Red Pandas in a tree. I will write a separate post with more photos of our observations of this beautiful and special species.

At the end of the week we returned to Chengdu very satisfied. We probably had the best Giant Panda sighting for non-Chinese in over a decade! I am very curious to see which observations will follow this year. In any case, more attempts are being made! Jan boarded the plane back home in Chengdu and Daniel and I continued to add an important new species to my cat list: Chinese Mountain Cat! A little spoiler alert is that we didn’t see it though. Good thing we already had the best one in the bag!


2 comments so far

Holvoet AdrienPosted on9:46 am - Jan 24, 2024

Fantastische waarneming…. topfoto’s ook…. en wat een verhaal ! Gefeliciteerd Lennart !
Adrien Holvoet 👍🐱

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