Red Pandas and Blue Sheep

Although the district of Darjeeling (a part of West Bengal) seems quite Himalayan to the many holidaymakers coming up from the plains, it is considerably lower than most of Sikkim. The town itself though, is spread out over several hillsides and, despite the fact that its population rivals that of the whole state of Sikkim, it relies on tea and tourism for its relative prosperity.

We arrived here after another lengthy journey and are trying to have a few restful days before heading back to Calcutta and home. Raj is obviously tired after all that mountain driving and also looking forward to getting home so he has not minded us scrubbing a few of the Darjeeling sights off the list: Japanese Peace Pagoda – seen one in Orrisa, Tea Garden – seen one in Kerala, Himalayan Tibet Museum – what, another one?, Handicraft market – not again!, Mountaineering Institute – no thanks.  So that left just the miniature railway, the sunrise on Kanchenjunga and the zoo.

The Darjeeling Himalaya Railway has actually been designated a World Heritage complex and far from being the toy that its nickname suggests, it was a masterpiece of engineering innovation. The narrow tracks and short wheelbase meant that it could negotiate tight bends and steep inclines, much reducing the need for blasting and tunnelling. Its success in the late nineteenth century led the way for many of the rest of India’s mountainous regions.

We did not travel very far but only took in the last couple of stops from the Gorkha Memorial to the depot, just enough to enjoy the experience without becoming overly tired of the constant hooting from the loco. Boys and their toys! The pride and affection with which it is operated have to be seen though; touristy it may be but everyone should take the trip at least once in a lifetime. After all, it loops right around the Batasia Park to afford a distant view of the whole Himalayan range, the five sacred peaks of Kanchenjunga included. And yes, we did manage to see them after all.

The highlight of Darjeeling for us, though, has to be the big cats and other rare animals at the zoo. This institution has won the privilege of a breeding licence for both red pandas and snow leopards, is home to more Himalayan wolves than any other zoo in the world and has been successful in breeding all of these species. The little red panda is not closely related to the more famous the black and white giant cousin despite its superficial resemblance and bamboo diet. Although diminishing numbers are a cause for concern, it can at least supplement its diet with grubs and other small animals unlike its larger namesake. At this zoo, a few individuals hide in some very high tree canopies and a great deal of patience is required to get a sighting. We did.

The blue sheep, another rarity of the Eastern Himalaya that we had failed to see in Sikkim, is indeed a pale silvery blue beauty. The gentle faced ewes dozed in the sunshine when we visited but the ram was nowhere to be seen. Despite being so taken with the cats, I returned later to his separate enclosure and waited for him to make an appearance. He obviously appreciated the gesture because he came out his cover to pose manfully on a rock showing off his magnificent horns especially for my camera.

All the animals (with the possible exception of the jackal) have substantial enclosures set upon sloping terrain which gives excellent viewing and photographing opportunities for anyone prepared to be patient. Now, this simply does not apply to most Indian families who also seem completely unable to understand any signage urging them to be quiet but there are indications that things are changing. A uniformed assistant showed obvious pride as he tried to explain a little about the animals to us, despite having few words of English. Considering the exploitation still taking place in much of the rest of Southern Asia, it is only in the growing sense of responsibility and prioritisation taking place in modern India that any hope for these animals resides.

Big cats, yes let’s get onto the big cats! Did you know that a Royal Bengal tiger weighs ten times as much as a clouded leopard? Or that the latter has equally magnificent face markings? That a black leopard’s spots are clearly visible in the sunshine? That the world population of snow leopards, although highly endangered, is estimated at ten times that of the critically endangered and equally beautiful Himalayan wolf? That the jungle cat, with its distinctive sinister blue-green eyes, can vary in size from that of a domestic moggy to a small leopard and has mysteriously adapted to survive across much of Southern Asia? Maybe because it doesn’t have the type of spotty coat that appeals to trophy hunting dentists or Eurotrash fashionistas.

Words cannot do justice to the pleasure of seeing these animals in such a considerate environment and, for anyone doubtful about the sincerity of the conservation message in India, I can only repeat my experiences of last year. In Gulmarg on the Indo-Pakistan border of Kashmir, villagers are intensely proud of the occasional sightings of snow leopards during the winter. No, I didn’t see one last May, it was enough to be meeting people who had.

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