Our recently film took more than 2 years in making but the result of arduous work reveals for the first time in the world the complete lifecycle of Red Pandas, a species seldom sighted or hardly studied in the wild - its called Cherub of the Mist- Angels of the Mist.
Sunrise light up the world’s third highest peak Kanchjunga, on the boarder of India and Nepal. These mountains stand guard over many secrets. Deep in some of the most inaccessible terrain on earth lives a rare and elusive animal, hardly seen or studied in the wild…the “Fire Cat”- or “Red Panda”.
After seeing a Red Panda at the Darjeeling zoo we were fascinated by these mysterious creatures and decided to make a film about them. We began our work in Singlila National park, which lies in the East Indian state of West Bengal, sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan.
We combed the forest for Red Panda day after day, but in such dense undergrowth they’re virtually impossible to see. For months, we didn’t catch a single glimpse and Sunita Pradhan, who had studied the Red Panda for over ten years, advised us to be patient. She told us that it had been her over seven months to spot her first Red panda in the wild, but when she finally had, the moment was worth the effort.
Our first sighting was no different. It was love at first sight. From that point on, we were determined to protect these angelic animals. From that point on, we were determined to protect these angelic animals.
Like Naresh Bedi our father, who inherited his love for nature from his late father Dr. Ramesh Bedi (a renowned author and specialist on the medicinal plants of India), since childhood we too have been exposed to wildlife and spent school holidays with our father and uncle, Rajesh Bedi, looking for wild elephants in the Shivalik foothills or lions in the Gir forest. This early exposure to the 'wild world' gave us the confidence to take up challenging and risky assignments to record rare animal behaviour. We learnt much more at home than at our media institution.
We will never forget watching the VHS cassette of Wildscreen Awards 1984, in which Naresh Bedi, our father, received the prestigious ‘Panda Award’ popularly known as the ‘Green Oscar’ for Best Wildlife Cameraman for his film The Ganges Gharial. This was the first natural history film on the life of this highly endangered fish eating crocodilian, at a time when only 300 individuals were struggling to survive in the wild. The film was not sponsored or supported by any organisation and was produced independently using very basic equipment.
It was a great honour and joy for our dad who had voluntarily left the glamour of Bollywood films after graduating as top student from India's best film school to embark on a career in wildlife filmmaking.
It was the shear love and passion of our father that lead to his success in taking Indian natural history films to the international platform. Since becoming the first Indian to win the ‘Green Oscar’, he never looked back. He went on to become only India to have his two tiger films nominated at British Academy Film & Television Awards (BAFTA) equivalent to Hollywood ‘OSCAR’.
Our dream was to be like our father, under the guidance of our father we both started working on the challenging project of red pandas in Singalila National park in the state of West Bengal. As we talked to experts, field biologists and locals we were discouraged because of their elusive nature. It was a real challenge to track a panda in these vast impenetrable forests on undulating hills, often covered in thick fog - like trying to find a needle in haystack.
Not many Indians knew about red pandas, but they had heard and seen pictures of giant pandas in China - the symbol of conservation. We wanted our film to spread awareness about the red pandas in a similar way - little angels of misty mountains who are struggling for survival.We had taken up the challenging assignment to film a highly endangered animal, which has hardly ever been filmed or photographed before in the wild. Whether or not we would be able to capture enough interesting material to make an hour long film was a big question.
Sadly no broadcaster came forward to fund this difficult and risky project. Finally we convinced our father that he should let us try and if we failed we wont have any hitch in our mind of not trying hard. I think our determination made our father to came forward with necessary funding and support as they felt it was important that the fate of such a threatened species was exposed to conserve the panda's fast depleting habitat.
In the first ever census in the Singalila National Park in 1994, only 47 Red Panda were found. By then, most of them had already disappeared from the upper hills of nearby Darjeeling. The park was set up in 1992 and cover 78 square kilometres of forest up to an altitude of 3600 meters. Fir, oak and bamboo all thrive in these temperate, humid and often misty hills.
It’s the abundance of bamboo- all year round- that makes this a heaven for Red Panda. Bamboo leaves make up 90 per cent of the Red panda’s diet. They do, however, eat large quantities because they can only digest 30 percent of the nutrition the bamboo contain. These gentle, solitary vegetarians therefore spend most of their time curried up in the trees, only descending to feed, defecate or mate.
Until recently, most scientists believed red pandas were a kind of bear, while their pointed ears and whiskers also linked them to the cats. The latest DNA studies, however, show they come from the same family as racoons. Strangely, through, they also have a link to lizards and snakes. They use their tongue to ‘taste’ the air and have a special pit inside their mouth that analyses vapours, picking up the scent of danger.
Our mission to film the red Panda in its natural habitat coincided with a bold experiment carried out by the official at the Darjeeling Zoo. As the officials were concerned about the falling numbers of Red Pandas, they had recently joined a Global Captive Breeding Programme in the hopes that this would one day help boost populations in the wild.
More than 37 cubs have been born at the zoo since 1992, including the females six year old ‘Sweety’ and five year old ‘Mini’. Both have been chosen for a unique mission, to be the first zoo born Red Pandas released into the wild. this mission “back to wild” could be possible.
While the West Bengal forest department and Central Zoo Authority with zoo keepers and official had been meticulously planning this for several years, it was still a nerve racking procedure. As it was to be the first time anyone had tried such an experiment, there was no way of knowing how Sweety and Mini would cope in the wild. But it was a chance that had to be taken.
After detailed health and DNA tests, both Sweety and Mini were deemed ready for stage one of their release and were officially handed over to the forestry Department. Sweety and Mini spent the first three months away from the zoo in a fenced off enclosure. The three- month introduction went well and the two were fitted with radio collars and prepared for their final release.
With the help of Global Positioning Systems- the conservationists were able to collect vital data on both the Red Pandas’ movements and their favourite feeding areas. As resources were limited, they were being monitored on alternative days.
After a month had passed since Mini and Sweety were released into they the wild, they split up and appeared to be adopting the more solitary lives of wild Red Pandas. Sweety appeared healthy and relaxed. She’d homed in on a good bamboo patch. She also seemed to be exploring and had traveled four kilometers Northwest along a mountain stream. She was always on the move, which made it hard for the team to keep up.
Trekking red pandas required 6-7 hours trekking every day in the mountains region. It was not easy carrying around 20- 25 kilograms of camera equipment through steep slippery climb and negotiating thick bamboo under growth.
As we talked to experts, field biologist and local we were discouraged because of their rare sighting and thick forest cover. Local people use to laugh that we taking so much pain just too photographed wild pandas. They started calling us “MAD BEDIBROTHERS” in local language, which we discovered later.
Soon we realized the problems to find a panda in these vast impenetrable forests was like finding a needle in haystack. Even with the help of radio trekking it was not easy, single often use to bounce back which leads us to opposite direction. The major problem we faced was of weather conditions which rarely allowed three to four hours for filming as area get covered with thick mist and visibility reduced to few meters only. We worked in constant fear of being mauled by Himalayan black bear often seen in that area.
Mini, on the other hand, traveled west uphill towards the border with Nepal. It was a good area with lots of food and also a high density of wild Red Pandas. But there were dangers too. She kept crossing the border to Nepal, though she’d made it safely back several times, the team tracking her was worried she wouldn’t always be so fortunate. The border lay close to villages and there was a risk that she’d fall prey to village dogs. But it wasn’t just the dogs that were a threat from Nepali villages. Farmers had stripped the hillsides that adjoined the National Park of almost all their tree.
Red Panda habitat was being lost forever to terraced fields. They also had to be weary of predators, such as the clouded leopard, an expert climber who can reach the forest canopy, where the pandas spend their time, with ease.
As winter gave way to spring and the days started getting longer, the Red pandas in the park started looking for a mate. Sweety appeared busy scent marking. We wondered if she could possibly be trying to attract a male as Pandas put the message out by scent rather than sound.
The mating process for the Red Panda is extremely complicated. Timing is crucial as females are only receptive for a single day in a year. It is still not known what influences this peculiar day and a female will not accept advances by any male before or after that day.
It didn’t take us long to spot a large male wild panda. He appeared to be picking up a scent and sure enough, a female soon appeared. It wasn’t Sweety but she seemed relaxed about our presence. The male, transfixed, made his move. He presented himself with a telltale twitter which was followed by a hot pursuit, when he finally managed to get a grip, he began to lick and groom the female.
The most challenging sequences to film were mating. Red panda courting and mating takes place during the winter months in sub zero temperatures - making it extremely difficult and hazardous to track them. Moreover, you have to be lucky enough to be present at the right place at the right moment. Their mating lasted for 20 minutes and was much gentler than noisy neck-betting affairs of the cat family.
After a month of rigorous tracking we were extremely lucky to capture the detailed sequence of their mating and in the process became the first ever filmmaker in the world to do so!
After this brief interlude, the females and the male went back to their usual solitary lives. But we planned to keep a close eye on the Dolma as there was a good chance she may have conceived, and if so, she would give birth in around five months’ time.
We had lost track of Mini and her radio signals were worrying as they were faint and constant. This meant that she was no longer moving around, or had been captured or traveled far out of range. We were not prepared to give her up to lost and hoped that she had mated and would soon be giving birth to cubs.
But sadly … our worst fears came true… Mini had not survived through the winter. So what happened to her? We looked for further clues. The presence of her tail proved that poachers didn’t killed her, as they would certainly have taken this valuable prize. There was a small hole in the skull that could have been a predator’s bite and it looked as if a leopard attacked her. It’s a fate that could befall any red panda, but it was still heartbreaking.
In May, rain-bearing clouds carried by strong winds lashed against the mountains and signaled the start of the four-month long South-west monsoon. Red Pandas have evolved in these torrential downpours and are well equipped to tolerate an annual rainfall of around three meters. The water runs off their long outer hair, keeping their body warm and dry below. In 100 percent humidity, bamboos sprout nutritious shoots and leaves- making this the best time for Red Pandas to cub.
Our crew and camera equipment had beating of bad weather storm and heavy rainfall. We had to keep our camera protected by heavy mousier which allows our camera to shut down completely. We have to keep our self covered too but even then dozes of leeches use to hang onto our body after sucking blood. But now, we were determined to finish our film on red pandas.
Since losing Mini, we began keeping a close watch on both Sweety and Dolma. We weren’t sure they were pregnant, but if so they would soon begin to make a nest. Dolma looked heavy and one day we spotted her carrying a branch down from the treetops 3 meters up.
She led us to a tree hollow five meter above the ground and we immediately determined that she was making a nest, a laborious and tiring process. Inside the hollow, which was more than a meter deep. Dolma carefully arranged material to make a round depression that would support her curled body. She gradually built up a thick, snug bed. These spongy layers provided a base to soak up any rain, so that she and her future cubs stay warm and dry.
Not all red pandas do such elaborate nest building job and as we watched Dolma build her nest we were excited to know that we would be the first to film the entire nesting behaviour. In order not to miss any of the action we rigged a nearly tree with remote cameras and maintained a 24 –hour vigil in the hopes of filming a Red Panda’s birth.
As the time for giving birth approached, Dolma appeared completely focused on her task, and never stopped to rest for long. As the time for delivery drew near, Dolma started to spend more and more time grooming herself and started to eat for up to fourteen hours a day to keep her energy levels high.
We witnessed Dolma wrapping her furry tail protectively around her babies as she began to lick them clean from head to toe. The licking stimulated their circulation and helped mother and baby to bond. The babies would remain inside the nest for the next three months, and would not be weaned for another eight.
During the peak of the monsoon, we continued tracking Sweety. She appeared localized to one small area and her signals seemed to come from the hollow of a tree. We wondered what she had been doing in there…. Resting or giving birth? We lined the camera up precisely by the entrance to the hollow, to get a bird’s eye view inside and our lens delivered fantastic news – Sweety had delivered a single cub!
This first success of the mission ‘Back to the wild’ has certainly turned out to be a hopeful sign for Red Panda conservation. Despite being born in a zoo, Sweety managed to mate with a wild panda and deliver a cub. The daring experiment by Darjeeling Zoo officials has proven that by releasing captive bred panda, there is indeed potential to supplement wild populations. Sweety and Mini’s success offers fresh hope that we can repair the damage of the past and help secure a future for these cubs.
We called our film Cherub of the Mist and filmed over a period of two years. We combed the forest for red pandas day after day and were extremely fortunate to see and film eight wild pandas. No one knows how many exactly red pandas survives in India but approximate numbers is about 2500 approx in the world including sub-species in China.
The film so far have bagged 9 International awards and spread red panda conservation message to millions of people across the world. It was as if a dream came true at the Wildscreen film festival also known as Green Oscar Awards 2006 Gala Awards Ceremony. The film had a tough competition with 412 films from 45 countries.
We felt honoured that our film on the little red panda was awarded with a Giant Panda Award, the symbol of conservation. We were overwhelmed to be there on the stage in front of distinguished guests and the fraternity of wildlife filmmakers. The recognition of our work by Wildscreen's international jury means a lot. The award is an encouragement to continue making good films to spread awareness and a conservation message.
We can never compare our self with our father Naresh bedi who is Indian answer to David Attenborough. He has given voice to the India's rich environmental, cultural and religious heritage through a series of acclaimed television films. Since past 40 years he is spreading a strong conservation message have also made significant contributions to the subcontinent's natural history. Young generation like us can make a difference too. It is because of the persistence and patience of both of us, we were able to record for the first time the various aspects of elusive Red Panda’s secretive life in the wild. It is because of the rare behavioural footage which not many have seen makes this film is first ever in depth study of this beautiful Cherub of the mist in the wild.
We are proud, following the family tradition and keep up same quality and passion for wildlife films. We were extremely lucky to record different aspects of red panda’s lifecycle, which has never been recorded on film in the past.
‘Cherub of the Mist’ is more than a film. It is statement and a plea for the conservation of the natural wonders of the world!