Searching for the Red Panda

“They’re very secretive animals,” says Rajarshi Chakraborty, leaning back in his chair and nodding at a poster of Sikkim’s state animal, the red panda. “Very difficult to spot.”

Sikkim is home to several species of exotic wildlife: the snow leopard, the Himalayan tahr, the blue sheep, the Tibetan wild ass, the blood pheasant, the Himalayan black bear and of course the red panda. However, only in the last few years have serious surveys been undertaken to determine where these animals live and just how many there are in the state. There have only been two major studies in the region, both in the Singhilila Range. We really don’t know how many of our state animal are left.

“Every visitor to the state wants to know the population of red pandas in Sikkim,” says DFO-East Karma Legshey.

Not knowing how many of our state animal are left might make it seem like someone dropped the ball, but the truth is that, even in a state as geographically small as Sikkim, a comprehensive animal census is a subtle and enormously time consuming project. However, the Sikkim office of the World Wildlife Foundation – India, where Mr. Chakraborty is a programme officer, is currently collaborating with the Forest Department on such a project, specifically working to determine the status of the red panda in Sikkim. Recently NOW! sat down at the Forest Department offices with the DFO-East and at the WWF office with Mr. Chakraborty, as well as Senior Project Officer Dr. Partha Sarathi Ghose and Field Officer Basant Sharma, to discuss their efforts. Dr. Ghose and Mr. Sharma recently returned from fourteen days of preliminary study in Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in West Sikkim.

The survey they are working on is part of their ongoing “Long Term Survival of the Red Panda in Sikkim” project, which, having begun in August of 2005, is the second longest running effort of the WFF Sikkim office. The survey is the first major study of the red panda in Sikkim, with field operations beginning in 2007 and expected to continue for at least a couple more years.

“This kind of exercise has never been done in Sikkim,” says the DFO. “The ultimate goal is to save red pandas from extinction.”

Preserving the red panda requires a better understanding of what environmental factors are needed for the creatures to flourish, so that the Forest Department can better manage red panda habitats and ensure that the creatures are not disturbed by development. Understanding the red panda habitat also helps with the population survey; we know that red pandas tend to prefer areas with good bamboo and medium-sized trees, so identifying and focusing our examinations on those spots gives us the best chance to collect relevant data.

Unfortunately the survey is not so simple as going out into the woods and counting the number of red pandas you see. Some decades ago visitors used to report seeing red pandas on the side of the road, but these days such encounters no longer happen, either because red panda numbers have dwindled or because they now stay away from human touched areas.

“Sightings are not that common,” says Dr. Ghose. “They keep to high altitudes.”

Adds Mr Chakraborty: “You can’t use traditional census techniques. Red pandas have no distinct markings that make it easy to identify individuals.”

The process goes like this. First the team distributes questionnaires about red panda sightings in English and Nepali at all the villages surrounding the area being surveyed. This provides a baseline set of information on which the project operates. Next they examine satellite imagery of the sanctuary to identify, based on the terrain and forest growth, areas that may contain red panda habitats. Then they make preliminary explorations of these areas to confirm which specific spots are panda-hospitable. On the most recent trip to the Barsey Sanctuary, Dr. Ghose and Mr. Sharma covered about 12 square kilometres in this way. When this preliminary study is complete, the team will return for an intensive survey of likely red panda habitats, looking for evidence that the creatures are present. Luckily the red panda does have a very distinctive scat, and by looking for this and other signs of their presence the WWF hopes to eventually amass enough data to, after some delicate statistical analysis, start making some scientifically sound estimates about the red panda and its environs in Sikkim. Along with looking for signs of red pandas, their methodology involves taking samples of soil, water, vegetation and so forth from various separate plots.

It is a long process, and Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary is only the team’s latest stop. Over the past several years they have completed surveys in East Sikkim of Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary (the second largest protected area in the state), Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary and Pambonglho Wildlife Sanctuary. Now they are turning their attention to the West District. However, even if they complete Barsey in record time, there still remains the North District, which includes Kanchanjunga National Park — a huge area compared to these other sanctuaries. And of course the success of any of these survey trips, especially in the North, is dependent on the weather and the roads. The high altitude makes things difficult as well.

The team expects their project to take quite a long time: several years yet at least. The Singhilila study took three years and produced what they tell me is very shaky data. The WWF and Forest Department are determined to do better, but it won’t be quick, or easy. Still, even though the finish line is still a long ways away, they have already gathered enough data to make some tentative preliminary estimates about the red panda population in their first site, Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary. According to Dr. Ghose and DFO Legshey, the estimated population density there is believed to be around one red panda per every 1.34 square kilometres. Pangolakha is estimated to have around 50 square kilometres of potential red panda habitat, so if we do the math we come to 35 to 40 red pandas living in Pangolakha. The team hastens to remind me that this is a “conservative, crude estimate.” The Barsey survey is largely to confirm the findings of the Pangolakha survey.

The eventual goal of this work is to better inform policy makers on how to best go about protecting and preserving the red panda. When I ask what sorts of policies these might be, however, Dr. Ghose holds up his hands and shakes his head.

“Policy is a great way away. But obviously we sit down with the Forest Department to show our findings. Then they will determine the best course of action. It is our job to empower them with data.”

Adds the DFO: “Usually researchers and management work separately. In this project we work very closely.”

The Sikkim Forest Department is a main stakeholder with equal ownership of the “Long Term Survival” project, providing logistics, permits and occasionally additional manpower. Researchers often have better access to some information than government groups, and the Forest Department is determined to make the most of their collaboration with the WWF. The WWF efforts are helping the department sensitise field staff and policy makers on the importance of red panda conservation.

“A scientific mindset is being inculcated in my people in the field,” the DFO says enthusiastically.

So even though a full action plan may still be a while off, this unique partnership between the WWF and the Forest Department is already having a powerful effect. Researchers reported problems in the Northern Pangolakha Range with feral dogs and locals who were disturbing red panda habitats by collecting firewood. Normally this information would sit in a folder until the full report was ready to be filed, but in this case the WWF researchers walked next door to the Forest Department and informed the DFO, who acted by holding awareness programmes for villagers nearby and assigning three more forest guards to the area.

This anecdote is a good example of the kind of management that the Forest Department does to conserve the habitats of endangered animals like the red panda. Providing for the needs of people near these habitats with fuel and firewood subsidies prevents them from disturbing delicate jungle. Because of these subsidies it is now cheaper to get kerosene in Nathung than in Gangtok.

“The situation is not that grave, but a lot of development is happening. The red panda is a sensitive animal,” says Dr. Ghose.

In some ways all this seems like a lot of work for one little animal that no one ever sees, but the ambitions of the project are actually quite large. From this “comprehensive scientific survey,” the DFO hopes to develop policy that will increase the number of red pandas in Pangolakha from the current 35-40 to three digits “in our lifetime.”

“We want to be pioneers,” says DFO Legshey. “What we do here will have implications for red panda conservation all through the Himalayan belt.”

Efforts like these are going on all over the world, gathering data on dozens, hundreds of endangered species. Without reliable information on the populations and habitats of endangered animals, governments and NGOs won’t know how best to focus their efforts to protect species threatened by human development or climate change.

It is a good thing, then, that we have guys like Basant Sharma and Partha Sarathi Ghose to go stomp around the woods, looking for scat. And sometimes their work is rewarded: not long ago, after two years of searching for wild red pandas in Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary, they finally saw one in the flesh, and snapped its picture.

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