At first glance, I thought it was the same brown mossy and algal growth that I had been seeing for the past few hours on the tree branches during our walk through dense forests. But suddenly, as I looked beyond the mossy patch at a nuthatch that was climbing another branch, the patch moved. Focusing my binoculars on the brown mass, I could make out some light and dark brown rings on it. Within seconds it took the shape of a tail, that of a red panda. I could not believe my eyes. My first day in Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP) and I see the state animal of Sikkim, the elusive red panda.
It boded well for the longish trip we’d planned — trekking up to Dzongri and back to Yuksom in Khangchendzonga National Park’s southern parts, then checking out Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, and rounding off the nature reserve feast with a visit to Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary. With ample stops for birdwatching and photography along the way, we reached our first night halt, Tshoka (3,000m), in about 8 hrs, pitching tents on the camping ground of the Trekkers’ Hut there.
Next morning we were up early to catch a breathtaking sunrise over Mount Pandim (6,691m), followed by an equally fantastic birding session. We sighted blood pheasant, yellow-billed blue magpie, nutcracker, lammergeier and firetailed and Mrs Gould’s sunbirds. Soon after breakfast, we started out for Dzongri, a steep climb of 6 hrs with a break at Phidang (3,650m). The climb along with the thin air exhausted us — but the tiredness miraculously vanished with the sighting of the Trekkers’ Hut at Dzongri. Piping-hot noodle soup revived us further, and we were soon ready to set out for another stint of nature and birdwatching. The views of the surrounding peaks were magnificent, as was the reflection of the afternoon sun bouncing off from the wings of a Himalayan griffon. Another early start the next day, this time to watch the sun rise over snowcapped Khangchendzonga and other peaks from Dzongri Top. The day’s stay at Dzongri yielded sightings of several species of rock thrush, accentor, lark, finch and bullfinch. Next day was an easy trek down to Tshoka, and another day’s trek brought us down to Yuksom.
After paying off the porters and our guide at Yuksom, we embarked on the drive to Hilley, the entry point for Barsey. After a night halt at Soreng’s Forest Rest House and procuring permission from the Range Officer at Soreng, the next day, several birding halts later, we were at Hilley via Sombaria. This is rich birding country, with the Forest Rest House’s environs yielding good sightings of the common kestrel and several species of laughing thrushes. Early next morning, amid the chorusing of hill partridges, we set off on the trek into Barsey, accompanied by Lakpa, the lone Forest Guard of the Hilley Checkpost. It was early dawn, with the sun yet to hit the hillsides. Hearing a rustling sound from the slope to our left, we looked up. And there, up on an oak tree, perched an Asiatic black bear. Even as Lakpa motioned to us to walk backwards, the bear descended at lightning speed and vanished into the dense forest. The entire incident took less than 10 seconds. Lakpa allayed our apprehensions by assuring us that a bear would not normally attack humans unless it was a mother bear with cubs nearby.
The walk to Barsey Top is through flaming forests of rhododendron in spring. We spotted larks and finches, as well as the scat of wild dogs that occasionally visit the sanctuary from the neighbouring Singalila NP. Back at Hilley there was another surprise sighting. As we scanned the slopes behind the Forest Checkpost for birds, the dogs accompanying us suddenly set up a din, dashing towards a slope. A look-up revealed a leopard. Probably on its regular evening prowl when it was so rudely disturbed by the dogs, the big cat gave us an annoyed look before disappearing into the thick forest above. Next morning we drove south via Sombaria, Jorethang, Legship and Kewzing to Rabangla, the gateway to Maenam WLS, stopping at Kewzing to admire a soaring black eagle. The trek within Maenam the next day was through lovely forests of oak, chestnut, rhododendron and carpets of flowers to Maenam Top. Fauna spotted included the rare satyr tragopan and barking deer. Three nature reserves explored in eight glorious days of wandering about thick forests, climbing steep slopes, marvelling at snowy peaks and Himalayan fauna — our wildlife cup runneth over…
Location: Khangchendzonga National Park covers almost the entire north-western part of Sikkim, bordering Nepal in the west and the Tibetan plateau in the north. Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary is tucked away in the south-west corner of West Sikkim District, while Maenam WLS is in South Sikkim District
Distances 725 km N of Kolkata, 90 km N of Darjeeling, 130 km W of Gangtok, 119 km N of Siliguri
Route from Siliguri NH31 to Sivok; NH31A to Melli Bazaar; SPWD Road to Khangchendzonga National Park (Yuksom) via Jorethang, Legship and Tashiding Route from Melli to Barsey State road to Hilley via Naya Bazaar and Sombaria Route from Melli to Maenam State road to Rabangla via Majhitar, Manpur, Namchi and Damthang
When to go; From Mar-Jun and Sep- Oct. Hardy trekkers can go for those magnificent peak views during the clear weather conditions of Nov and Dec
Go there for; Red panda, rhododendron
Permits For Khangchendzonga National Park; these have to be obtained in advance from the Tourism and Forest departments, but most travel agents organise it. Entry for foreigners into Sikkim requires Inner Line Permits, which again, travel agents can arrange from Sikkim House in Delhi/ Kolkata, but original passport with valid visas are required. Foreigners must report to the police outpost at Yuksom. Many western and northern areas of Khangchendzonga National Park, adjacent to the borders with Nepal and Tibet, are out of bounds for Indians as well. Visitors must be in teams of at least two, and must take a recognised guide, available with travel agents at Yuksom and Gangtok. Only vehicles registered with the West District (or some which have all-Sikkim permits) are allowed in and non-local porters cannot be hired. Porters and provisions such as LPG cylinders and stoves, vegetables and chicken are available at Yuksom. One can also get these from neighbouring towns and villages
About the Author
Dipankar Ghose, a PhD in wildlife science, has been working for wildlife conservation in north-eastern and eastern India for the past 12 years.