“ The zoo is recognized for it's conservation breeding programme of Red Pandas, Snow Leopards and several other endangered species. „
There are some things I don't recommend doing in what we might euphemistically refer to as 'less developed countries'. These include drinking anything with ice-cubes in it, eating sushi, showing interest in something you don't REALLY want to buy and going to zoos. I once had the chance to see the Giant Pandas in Beijing but the thought of seeing how animals were kept in a country that scarcely gives a damn about its own people, put me off and I went shopping instead. So normally if I saw a zoo on a list of a destination's highlights, you wouldn't get me in for love or money. But in the case of Darjeeling's zoo, there were two magic words that forced me to abandon my prejudices and put this on my must see list. Those two words were 'Red Pandas'.
I shouldn't have worried about animal welfare because I'd already read that the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Darjeeling is a world-renowned breeding centre for both red pandas and snow leopards and specialises in animals that are native to the Himalaya. It wouldn't have such a reputation if it wasn't a place that knew how to look after its critters, would it? And it's not every day you get to visit the cutest furry beasts known to mankind.
**Finding the PNHZP - or let's just call it the zoo**
It's worth knowing that a map in Darjeeling is about as much use as a chocolate teapot. The city which clings to the side of the mountains is three dimensional and no two dimensional map will ever be much good at identifying both where you are and where you want to go to in any meaningful way. We'd had the same experience last year in Shimla where the maps were possibly even more pointless. You just can't tell whether two lines on the map are close or several hundred vertical meters apart.
We set off from Chowrasta, the central square in the middle of the city, and took the road to the left side of the statue of the poet that marks the end point of the square. We passed the tourist office and the Windamere Hotel and followed a vague pointy sign towards the zoo. When the road signs ran out, I checked my useless map and decided we ought to come off this main pedestrian-only road and head down towards another prosaically named 'Hooker Road'. But all attempts to do that led us to a jaunt through what appeared to be lots of people's front gardens and eventually after lots of 'Told you sos' from my husband, we turned back and slogged up the hill again, back to our original road and carried on plodding down the hill. Much to our relief, we eventually saw more signs to the zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) and eventually we arrived in the right place.
Entrance to the zoo costs 100 Rp and includes entrance to the HMI. If you are a local, it's much cheaper - around 15 Rp - so you can usually find lots of people trying it on with the ticket sellers. "I'm Indian but my wife's not but surely she can still come in?"......"I've lived here for ages and I pay taxes, so you have to let me in for local rates". This is typical wherever you find differential pricing for locals and tourists and I find it quite funny. After all, it's about £1.25 to see RED PANDAS - I'd sell my house and all its contents just to get close to one of those.
**Finding your way around**
We planned our trip with two guide books - an elderly Footprint guide to the Indian Himalaya and a current copy of the Lonely Planet for India. Neither had been very glowing about the zoo, each recommending visitors to see the red pandas and the snow leopards and be out again in under half an hour. I found this really unfair on what is actually a very nice little zoo. Mind you, we did go straight to the red pandas because I was too excited to wait. So inside the gates, turn sharp right up the hill and there they are.
I didn't actually know anything about red pandas - other than of course that they are red and from the panda family. Just the name had caught my imagination but I'd never seen any photos so the beasts themselves were a big surprise. Like knowing that a painting is famous but not actually having seen even a print of it, the impact of coming face to face with something so unexpectedly beautiful was both a shock and a delight. The enclosures were well equipped with lots of trees to play on and plenty of space around them. Most had no bars - just a moat and wall effect. The pandas were running back and forth along the trees, repeatedly pacing back and forth in an obsessive compulsive sort of way. I can't honestly say they looked like they were having a lot of fun but then I don't know what quality of life a red panda has in the wild.
Red Pandas are about the size of a chunky fox. They are nothing like their obese and lazy cousins the giant pandas. If the giant pandas are the sumo wrestlers of the panda family, then the reds are more like nippy little athletes. Facially, they have a touch of racoon about them, their bodies are long and (forgive the repeat) fox-like, their tails are immensely thick and bushy and their legs are thick and furry with the toes turned inwards. I was instantly in love. The top of a red panda is a gorgeous mahogany red whilst the fur on the belly and legs is darker - like a two-tone car from the 70s or 80s. PNHZP has been involved in captive breeding of red pandas since the 1990s.
In the same area as the red pandas we also saw a surprisingly impressive collection of Himalayan pheasants exhibiting an astonishing array of colourful plumage. There was also a heart-meltingly fluffy curled up critter that was some kind of primate.
Back to the centre of the zoo, we headed towards the big cats, passing series of enclosures for various types of deer including cute little muntjacs which would be familiar to anyone who's driven the country roads of north Essex but are also natives to the Himalaya. The yaks were massive and stood totally still - so much so you could believe they were stuffed. And then we hit the second highlight - the snow leopards.
The picture dooyoo have chosen to illustrate this attraction is a snow leopard. Isn't it gorgeous? The breeding programme for the snow leopards has been running for 25 years. These soft grey big cats with mottled white and grey markings, short noses and high foreheads are very rarely seen in the wild. Our first glimpse was of a male who was in an enclosure many meters above us on a hillside. As we watched he 'sprayed' a massive stream of scent marking urine over the pathway below, narrowly missing a family of tourists. We laughed ourselves silly but took care not to walk in the same direction.
The leopards did seem a bit discontented - pacing back and forth in their cages or just listlessly lying in a corner snoozing and watching the visitors. There are other breeds of leopard also present including the beautifully marked 'clouded leopard'. Other big cats included two types of tigers - a female Bengal who was getting very angry at all the local visitors who were shouting at her ('please be quiet' completely ignored) and some Siberian tigers, the ones that like to swim. There's also a breeding programme for the Tibetan wolf, a big furry beast like a husky, and in total 10 of the species at the zoo are on special conservation programmes.
The final highlight of the zoo was to be found in the largest pen of all. He was a big black Himalayan bear, a chap so black and so fluffy that you could scarcely make out any features on his face for the sheer sense of fluffiness.
There's a small shop selling badly made toy red pandas and some public toilets. I didn't use these but my husband - peanut-bladder man - can't resist surveying the toilets wherever he goes, and said they were fine. There are no catering facilities in the zoo but your ticket includes entrance to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which has an excellent and extraordinarily cheap cafeteria for food and drinks.
This zoo is definitely worth a visit. It wasn't smelly, the animals all seemed to be in great condition and, whilst some were a bit bored, I'm willing to guess that it's not all parties and wild times out in the real world for animals either.
Despite facing quite a long and entirely uphill walk back to the town centre, we left with red pandas in our hearts, a spring in our steps and a determination to go home and tell anyone who might be wondering whether a zoo is worth visiting in India, that this one most certainly is.