The Path of the Panda – Trekking through the Anzihe Nature Reserve with Kyle Obermann

It turns out that the giant pandas from Chinese nature reserves are a little more elusive than many may think and it took a fair bit of grit and determination trekking through unexplored mountainous terrain for adventure photographer Kyle Obermann to find them.

But the nine-day expedition through the Anzihe Nature Reserve photographing the famous giant panda’s habitat was an opportunity of a lifetime, and one Kyle wasn’t about to pass up.

We caught up with him to hear more about his trip to China and why it was such an honour for him to be asked to join the expedition, following the Path of the Panda.

“It was a massive honour to be one of the first Western photographers invited to photograph in the Anzihe Nature Reserve, especially considering that even some of the rangers who’d spent twenty years there hadn’t explored the terrain we were trekking through. Being in a place that has been witnessed by so few people is thrilling, but it also adds a ton of pressure to photograph it well, in order to represent it accurately to others. Being the first to document something that no one has before truly a privilege and really motivates you to pull out your camera and shoot, even when every cell in your body is resisting.

I’m not a conservation scientist, but I see myself and my photography as PR for conservation efforts – storytelling and photography is a way to attract people to issues that matter and living in China, panda and wildlife conservation definitely caught my attention. The wild panda population in China is steadily increasing but there is still a long way to go.

My guides – the Sichuan men – travelled through the terrain as casually as they would for a morning commute. I on the other hand, battled through the jungle, leeches clinging to every inch of me and snagging my clothes on everything I could find to bump into. Our relation to the wild was worlds apart. For the Sichuan guides, this was work and not play – the task of finding and removing the poacher’s traps is essential to the conservation of the pandas and something that is taken very seriously.

On the seventh day, we encountered our first real sign of the panda: dry and predictably bamboo-filled droppings. As we moved deeper into the forest, we removed multiple wire traps and destroyed an illegal poaching shelter hidden behind a cliff. For the next four days we pushed further into the mountains, roaming into new regions of the map. Once there, we would carefully place and disguise our infrared cameras one by one along the alpine highway, to capture some footage of the pandas.

The route was never easy and it certainly wasn’t comfortable. On the last two days it got much worse, as we descended below the tree line and had to hack our campsites out of the soaking undergrowth and go through a repetitive process of finding and losing the animals trails we were trying to track. But that’s all part of the price you pay for going to someplace completely unknown – one moment it’s marvellous; the next all you want to do is go home.

For a section of jungle, I considered unpassable, my guides met me with “there will always be a path.” Their attitude was amazing and their drive to protect the wilderness even more impressive. I am a firm believer that hard work and passion pays off eventually, you just have to stick with it, and this is something that is engrained in the guides and their conservation efforts. For me, this is really the kind of work that I enjoy though. I enjoy the physical and mental challenge just as much as I enjoy the photography. It’s kind of a combination of athletics and photography, and I love it.

As much as I wanted my photography to capture the nature reserve, I really wanted the narrative to focus on the story of the land and the people as well. The Sichuan men are fundamental to the conservation of the giant panda population and therefore as important as the pandas in my photography story.

Any advice for people thinking of following a similar path to me? Be ready to get lost, tighten your belt, jump into the unknown, and there will be nothing more rewarding. Passion and grit, that’s what you need. And get ready for the addiction and burden of storytelling!”

To read more about Kyle’s experience in the Anzihe Nature Reserve, click here.

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